Technical Writing ToolBox

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Culture Shock: A Technical Writer’s Viewpoint

Gurpreet took this picture of a beggar while experiencing a culture shock in the streets of San Francisco.

No people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it.”- James A. Baldwin

Technical Communicators often have to travel overseas for an extended period of time for work, training, and higher education. Gurpreet Singh describes the stress, also known as culture shock, caused by living in a different culture and its different stages with his own personal experiences. He took the above photo while experiencing a culture shock in the streets of San Francisco.

What is a Culture Shock?

Culture Shock is defined as the stress or a feeling of disorientation, experienced by someone who is suddenly exposed to a different culture. Most people experience culture shock when they live overseas for an extended period of time.

People often equate culture shock to an illness that will suddenly occur one fine day and will have some physiological or psychological symptoms. This belief is incorrect; Culture shock is not a medical illness but a feeling of restlessness in a different environment. Environment is not just air we breathe or the food we eat, but extends to our surroundings, and culture as well.

Most people do not recognize that they are feeling a culture shock even when they are truly experiencing it. Culture shock often hides itself behind the feeling of being lost, disorientation, home sickness, depression, sudden feeling of sadness, and even sudden excitement.

My personal experience

I personally felt cultural shock thrice: first when I visited Japan to attend a twelve weeks training, second when I visited U.S to work on a project for six weeks, and finally when I relocated to Canada to pursue my higher studies in technical communication. The trigger factor, time of manifestation, and severity of cultural shock, was different in all three cases, But, one thing was common: the feeling of being lost, being disoriented, and the feeling of missing your own culture.

My personal experiences, I thought, were very strange. Sometimes I felt extremely happy, only to face a sudden feeling of being sad for no particular reason. Sometimes, I felt that the new culture is better than the culture of my country. The next day, I will feel exactly opposite. The confusion, frustration, and in some cases, the panic caused by culture shock cannot be immediately recognized by the individual experiencing it.

Looking back at my own experiences, I realized that I never had the sudden realization of a culture shock. It was only when I constantly felt sad for an extended period did I realize that something was wrong. I was never so sad earlier, and never felt this intensity of depression, or sudden mood swings. After researching my own symptoms, I recognized the problem: I was experiencing a culture shock!

Stages of Culture Shock

Stage 1: Honeymoon (Initial Excitement)

Honeymoon in Bali

The initial phase, also known as honeymoon, starts even before you place your foot in a new country, and continues for few days or weeks. You have high hopes, and continue to be constantly excited and amazed and excited with the new culture. This is similar to how newlyweds feel during their honeymoon! You overlook small problems, and have an idealistic view of the world.

My experience of the first stage (honeymoon) started even before I left my country. When I moved to Canada, everything seemed fantastic. The clean roads, the delight of tasting the famous Tim Horton’s coffee, the joy of learning the nitty-gritty of technical communication at a post graduate level, making friends , eating out a new cuisine every week, and thousands of other joyful experiences, made me a happy man. Oh boy, the world seemed so beautiful and charming! I remember calling my family and telling them that this is the best place to live in the world.


Stage 2: Culture Shock (Frustration, Feeling Lost, Homesickness)

Crisis on Centaurus

The second phase, also known as the crisis period, starts after a few weeks or months have passed. You start taking a more realistic view of your surroundings. The negative aspects get highlighted and you often start comparing your native culture to the new culture. You constantly feel stressed due to the unfamiliarity with the new culture, and feel rejected, confused, and homesick. This is not a sudden shift, and may occur during the first six months of your stay.

My experience of the second stage (crisis stage) started after a few months. Waking up at 5am to attend an early morning class on Technical Editing wasn’t exciting anymore (though it was still interesting). Tim Horton coffee didn’t taste as good as it did before. The pressure of weekly assignments started causing stress. Longing for home cooked Indian food gradually became very strong, and the desire of trying out a new cuisine was fading out. People were not helpful as they seemed earlier. I felt lost, and wanted to go back home. I was deep inside the second stage of culture shock.

Stage 3: Adjustment (Recovery)

The third stage, a turning point of your journey, is the Adjustment or recovery stage where you start understanding the new culture. You accept the differences and try to expand your understanding by immersing yourself in your new surroundings. You regain your sense of humor back, and start making friends. You appreciate the differences between your new and old surroundings, and start feeling more at home. You still have to face ups and down, but now your actions and emotions are in control.

My personal experience of the third stage (crisis stage) started after a few weeks of the crisis stage. I started visiting the local Sikh Temple (Gurudwara) more often. Things have now started to make sense. I stopped feeling lost and rejected by the new culture. Friendship with my classmates grew, and I felt more Canadian than I did a few months back. I came out of the black hole of sadness, and started going out more often. I was back in action!

Stage 4: Dual Identity

A maple leaf painted on a sidewalk using a ste...

This is the last stage of your journey where you gain mastery over your new surroundings. You gain a dual identity and feel at home. You feel relaxed, and start considering yourself as a bicultural.

I still have to experience this stage, since I’m still in the recovery stage. I’m slowly but surely learning to appreciate the new culture. Now, I do not feel isolated or lost anymore. I’ve started to understand the Canadian culture, and am excited about completely immersing myself in my new surroundings to gain a bi-cultural identity.

Coping with Culture Shock

  • Recognize that you are undergoing through a stress and the reasons behind its occurrence. Don’t be ashamed to acknowledge your feeling of being lost or sudden mood swings.
  • Accept that this new way of life, however different it may seem, is a valid and positive lifestyle. Learn the rules of living in your
  • Bond with your surroundings. The common tendency of human nature is to get isolated while experiencing stress, including Culture shock. Fight with the urge to get disconnected with your new surroundings and find ways to connect with the culture and to make new friends.
  • Connect with your native culture. Get associated with expat groups from your country, eat food that reminds you of home, and listen to music from your home culture to reduce the feeling of homesickness.

I’d love to hear your own experience of handling a cultural shock. Leave a comment and let me know.

This article originally appeared in MITWA News, the newsletter of MITWA mailing list. It is published here with slight modifications.


8 responses to “Culture Shock: A Technical Writer’s Viewpoint

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  2. Pete Donahue April 4, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Interesting post, Gurpreet. I experienced similar feelings last summer while living in Chicago, but it wasn’t an intercontinental culture shock.

    I was born just outside of New York City but raised further upstate in a small town. I grew quite comfortable with my relaxed surroundings, so naturally I was in for a bit of culture shock when I relocated to the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. The neighborhood is one of the city’s most vibrant, and I felt like the pace of life there was far too fast to what I grew up with. I also felt relatively isolated because, here were all these people my age with places to go and people to see, yet I didn’t know anybody, so I definitely felt alone. I felt like since I didn’t know anybody, who even bother going out?

    I’m happy to say, though, that as the summer wore on, I did make it stages three and four. It took a while, but I’m really glad I had the experience. Though my relocation was far less intense as yours, I still relate to your story. And living in Chicago also gives me greater perspective of those experiencing culture shock; I feel like now I know how to better help somebody having a similar experience.

    Thank you for the blog post; I appreciate you sharing your tale!

    • Gurpreet Singh April 5, 2012 at 4:09 pm

      Hi Pete,

      Thanks for reading my blog.

      I`ve completed 8 months in Canada and feel much better than how I used to feel just few months back. Earlier I was calling my family several times a day due to home sickness which is now reduced to just two or three calls a week. I regained my sense of humor and life seems pretty interesting now 🙂

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