Dealing with Culture Shock

Dealing with Culture Shock

If you’re considering volunteering overseas but hesitating to commit, the chances are that one of the things bothering you is how you will adjust to a new job, new people, a new country and a new way of doing things on an everyday level. Of course, there’s a possibility that this humanitarian work overseas gig might just not be the thing for you; but even if you do have the necessary skills and temperament, culture shock can still play havoc when you’re out there volunteering.

Well, don’t worry, because all of us who’ve volunteered abroad have been there. Whilst my overriding memories of volunteering overseas are happy ones, I do distinctly remember there being some difficult times too. Because, ultimately, you have to get used to a new way of life for weeks, months or even years…and that’s never easy.

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So how do you cope with ‘volunteer culture shock’? I can’t pretend to have all the answers, but the following might help.

  • Feeling homesick? The key here is to introduce an element of the familiar comforts of home in to your life, at least for the initial settling in phase. This can be through connecting with volunteers from your own country (online expat groups are another possibility) and carrying over the sort of regular hobbies and activities you do at home overseas (e.g. going to the gym). If you’re in for the long haul, a visit from a friend/relative – or a short trip back home – might also help.
  • Feel like you can’t fully articulate what’s eating you to someone else, be that via a Skype call home, a chat with a fellow volunteer or an e-mail to the volunteer organisation? Writing it down can help. I know that sounds like it’s From the Psychiatrist Chair 101, but you know how they say there’s a unique dialogue between the author of a book and her/his reader? Same with your own unique line of communication between your head and your writing hand…and writing it down makes it easier for you to reflect upon it and react accordingly.
  • Local culture and customs can be baffling, upsetting or even downright offensive. It’s worth remembering, though, that the locals see you through a similar sort of lens. Keeping a low profile in public places is a good idea; better still, learning a few words of the local lingo is a sure-fire way to endear yourself to the locals. You are a guest in their country after all!
  • Of course, the language barrier can be a significant deal. It can be all too easy to clam up and isolate yourself in a protective bubble from your surroundings. Do this and you’re kind of missing the point of the experience. Be patient, allow time for you to adjust to your surroundings (and for them to adjust to you!) and you’ll soon start to find common ground.
  • As I’ve covered before, when it comes to being frustrated with how the organisation you’re volunteering with does things, be sure to not go all guns blazing. Observe, take notes, bide your time, establish yourself…and then slowly introduce change from the bottom up, not impose it from the top down.

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Ultimately, forewarned is forearmed, and if you’re proactive in communicating with the placement before you go out there – and, it should be said, make a point of reading up on the country as a whole beforehand too – then it’ll go a long way toward smoothing the transition.

Of course, you can never totally prepare yourself ahead of time and you only learn to properly adapt when on the ground. But if you’re patient with yourself and all around you – you are getting accustomed to so many new things simultaneously after all – and accept that the mental image you had in your mind of what the experience would be is tempered by the realities of the culture you’re in, then you’ll most likely be fine.

Good luck!

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  • Rachel Simmet

    May 16, 2016 at 8:42 pm Reply

    Thanks for the helpful tips. I’ve volunteering overseas in the past and luckily culture shock was not a huge issue for me due to the short amount of time I was there. I think the key is to have an open mind and never think that they way a person does something in another culture is strange, but instead interesting and unique. Also reading books and talking to fellow travellers ahead of time helps too so you know a bit of what to expect before you arrive overseas. That helped me a lot. 🙂

    • Joe

      May 17, 2016 at 5:51 am Reply

      Thanks for the tips Rachel. You absolutely should go with an open mind and do as much research as you can beforehand; and if you’re not willing to, you need to ask yourself if you should be doing it in the first place. Sounds harsh but it’s true. Thanks for dropping by 🙂

  • Amelie Gagne

    May 17, 2016 at 6:15 am Reply

    Ah yes, I’ve been there too. But reverse culture shock, also! For me it’s all part of the experience and what makes travel so special, being completely lost and phased for a few days after arriving. I wish I could bottle up this feeling and save it for later when I feel bored and jaded from wherever “home” is. Am I weird? 😉

    • Joe

      May 17, 2016 at 9:11 am Reply

      Ah yes reverse culture shock…might have to do a post on that in the future! Actually, I do know what you mean about the discombobulating experience of being somewhere new for a few days or so, and how it is actually an experience worth savouring. But you don’t want to immerse yourself too much in to that sort of feeling! It’s all about getting the balance right I guess 🙂

  • Natalie

    May 24, 2016 at 7:24 pm Reply

    I can totally relate to this post after volunteering in South Africa for two months! It is such a culture shock but so worth it 🙂 I am now dealing with the being at home culture shock!

    • Joe

      May 24, 2016 at 8:11 pm Reply

      I agree, once you get over the initial bedding in period it does get easier for sure. South Africa for two months? Kudos to you, and glad to hear it was a great experience. And yes, reverse culture shock does happen…something I will be sure to blog about in the future!

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