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Travelers Reveal the Biggest Culture Shocks They’ve Ever Faced Abroad

by Katie Scott Aiton Apr 27, 2018

You’re lost, standing baffled in new surroundings, unable to tell left from right, up from down, phone booths from trash cans or rip-off artists from friends. This is culture shock. The nuanced phenomenon can hit you as soon as you step foot in a new culture or take months to develop and thus overcome. Culture shock can be more than a surprise over new foods, foreign languages, or unfamiliar social norms. A recent thread at Quora, which asked people to share moments they faced the biggest culture shock, shed light on how often this manifests in simple daily interactions.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the experience of interacting for the first time with polite Canadians crops up often in threads. Quora user Taza comments: “Generally Canadians were and are still so damn polite. It was beautifully shocking how often they apologized. I’d say sorry is as dear to Canadians as beer, snow and hockey because Canadian say sorry every other minute! It’s super nice that they do this because it diffuses conflict or the possibility of conflict.”

In the same thread, Yahya Hararwala, shares his first experience visiting Pakistan as an Indian, “People in Pakistan are extremely friendly with wonderful hospitality.” He continues, “It was difficult to realize that this was the hospitality of the people of the country which is in a hostile political situation with India. In this visit, I realized that this hostility and the mindset is all only politically motivated, and does not actually exist on the ground.”

Whereas in Germany, many people have commented on the process assimilating to the rules of social interactions, specifically those of everyday chit-chat and the lack thereof. On Quora, Nicholas Corwin said that knowing how to socially interact in Germany is a difficult adjustment. “Not being able to chat up strangers at the bank, or on the train, etc., just to pass the time. I know, I know, that is a goofy American practice regarded with suspicion and disdain in many places, but it’s a deeply ingrained habit that I have trouble breaking.”

Rishabh Dev shares a little about his experience of coming to the US from India. “People smile at you and make small talk in elevators (that’s what Americans call a lift) all across America, so for someone who is new to this, keeping small talk ready for the next stranger becomes a task in itself. People smile and nod on the streets too.” He continues, “In India you can stare at the other person on the street till the person makes eye contact after which you look the other way and find someone else to stare at. But for all the friendliness, it is still difficult to make friends in the US.”

In comparison, Saya Madison from the US traveled to India had a different experience of friendship. She states: “Everyone in India goes out and plays with each other. Friends of my cousins would come over (uninvited) and ask my cousin if he wanted to go out and play, and then they would. In the US or Canada that would never happen. First off, everyone lives too far away from each other here, and secondly, it’s considered rude to come over to someone’s house uninvited. But it seemed to be a regular occurrence in India.”

On the topic of hospitality, Lyn Hacop shared her general impressions after visiting Armenia for the first time. She states: “I was treated like family every time I stepped into someone’s house or a restaurant. People were insanely nice and welcoming, even going as far as to offer to invite me over for Armenian barbeque and spread out a table with the finest appetizers and Armenian delicacies.”

For Joe Dawson, he was greeted with a bit too much Italian hospitality upon landing in Rome. “I sit down ready to try some of the famous Italian pasta that everyone talks about so much in the US. They integrate me into the Italian cuisine easily, starting out with Penne and Tomato sauce, simply ingredients… I clean up my plate and I’m ready to move on to whatever they usually do next. Suddenly I notice no one is leaving the table, no one is getting up to clean the table, and no one is leaving to do anything else as well. Suddenly the mother comes out with another dish of what I believe is supposed to be meatloaf with ham inside. Now, by this time I’m already pretty full so I’m not sure I really want to eat anything else. Of course, I don’t have the willpower to say no so I finish it up.” Dawson goes on to share that the meatloaf wasn’t even the end, but that it was followed up with a fruit course and a gelato course.

Swiss-born George Aliferis was pleasantly surprised at the savory breakfast he was given in South Korea. “I was awoken in the morning by a very strong smell of fish and spices. Half awake I couldn’t understand what was happening and why on earth someone would do that to me. It turned out that our hosts were cooking breakfast: a chilli fish stew with lots of garlic. I think of myself as well travelled and with a solid stomach but I will be honest my first thought was to run away, find an excuse to escape and try to find a croissant somewhere. Eventually I tried, reluctantly at first. But you know what? Chili wakes you up and can even replace coffee. It’s actually a really good dish to face the cold… I ended up asking for more and I now feel that all the rules that I grew up with in terms of food are habits, but are groundless.”

For Americans that are used to being handed the bill upon finishing their food so that the restaurant can turn the table, traveling abroad and not getting pressured to leave is often a shock. Dennis Hoffmann said: “Visiting Oslo, Norway earlier this year for the first time, I was in a restaurant having dinner my first night. Service was excellent, the food was great, and I was enjoying conversation with my son and an old friend who accompanied me. We ate and spent a lot of time talking about what we planned to do the next day. After dinner I waited for the server to bring the bill. And waited. And waited. And waited. Finally after having made eye contact with her several times but getting nothing but an occasional smile from her as she’d walk by, I got her attention and asked her for the bill, which she brought promptly. So, it turns out that in Norway, they don’t kick you out after you eat and don’t bring you the bill before you ask for it.”

Siddharth Sahu shared about the trusting nature of the people of Zurich. “I was completely bewildered here in Zurich when I found that in the COOP malls, there are self-service counters, where you scan the barcodes by yourself, deposit the amount to the cash machine, and pack the items in your bag. There are state of the art sensors and security systems to check theft, and no person does any verification physically. While buying vegetables too, you weigh them on the machine yourself, put a tag for the weight, and pay accordingly to the cash machine.” He continues “Furthermore, there has never been any checking for tickets in the buses and trams running within Zurich, in the two months I have been here.”

Similarly, Darian Binner noted the overall sense of safety in Japan. “My friend once lost a wallet with ~20,000 yen (150 euro, 180 USD) on the Yamanote line. He noticed it was gone, and he went to the police and he got his wallet back after 2 days (with the money). Seeing people reserve tables in Japan by putting their phones or wallets on the tables and then getting their food and leaving them alone is not an uncommon sight. If that were to happen in the USA, your wallet/phone will almost certainly get stolen.”

And of course, many people experience major culture shock in bathrooms around the world, from the bidets in Asia to the huge gaps in the stalls in the US. For Serbian native Milorad Botic, the biggest shock came while in the bathroom on a school trip in Dresden, Germany.

Rotating toilet seats. Boy, was I scared when I pushed the button for it to flush.. As soon as I pushed the button I heard some robotic sound. I was terrified. I’m really bad with technology so I thought that I somehow broke it. Imagine my surprise when I saw that it was moving. Rotating precisely. I was dumbstruck. I just stood there watching it clean itself. WOW.”

If you are trying to overcome little nuances of culture shock here are a few tips to make it easier and help you better understand how culture shock manifests and thus how to overcome it.

The first step, of course, is to recognize that what you’re going through is culture shock. If you can come to terms with wild mood swings and sad times, and recognize they’re part of the inevitable process, it’s a lot easier to convince yourself that the bad feelings will pass. And they will.

Secondly, it’s crucial to learn the language as you go. Culture shock, at its simplest, is an inability to integrate, and the biggest barrier to that is generally language. The more able a traveler is to laugh, cry, and seek solace with the locals, the easier it is to deal with ups and downs.

Though it can be one of the toughest parts of traveling, culture shock is just as integral to the experience as food, people, and scenery. By recognizing it for what it is and doing your best to cope, you can easily prevent culture shock from ruining an otherwise fantastic journey.

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