Culture shock and how to tackle it

Many people experience culture shock when they move to a new country. It can even be a very painful experience – especially if you don’t realise that it’s perfectly normal, or don’t know what to do about it.
Anna Sircova - culture shock
Anna Sircova is a psychologist and originally from Riga, Latvia. She has lived in Denmark for two-and-a-half years and works at DIS (Danish Institute for Study Abroad) in Copenhagen. Anna teaches Cross-Cultural Psychology courses for young American students. She has also studied Danish course 3 at Copenhagen Language Center.
 
Anna has previously given talks on “Cross-cultural mobility: stress, coping and adjustment”. We had an opportunity to sit down and chat with Anna about the phenomenon of culture shock and how to tackle it.

What is culture, and what is culture shock?

“Wherever there are people who share similar ideas and values, and speak the same language at the same time in the same location, we can speak of a distinct culture,” says Anna.

She talks about the culture shock that many people encounter when they move to a new country. It can be a very painful experience – especially if they don’t realise that it’s normal, or don’t know what to do about it.

We usually don’t think about our own culture until we move to a new country. Suddenly, things that were normal at home are no longer normal. This includes big things, such as language and ways of thinking. But it also includes the small things, like the clothes you wear and food you eat.

People who move to a new country typically go through three phases:

  1. The honeymoon: EVERYTHING is fun and exciting.
  2. Frustration: The sheer multitude of new things suddenly becomes TOO MUCH. You become irritated, frustrated, etc.
  3. Adaptation: Slowly you learn to understand the culture and get by.
3 phases of culture shock
Illustration by Chiara Nicola

What can you do if you find yourself in the midst of culture shock?

As frustrations peak, the world may seem unbearably chaotic and the only thing you want to do is go home! Fortunately, there are some things you can do:

  1. You need to structure your daily life as much as possible and stick to routines, such as work, studying, jogging, etc.
  2. You should try to be open and see problems as challenges: “Maybe there’s something you can get better at.” Humour also helps.
  3. You should seek out encounters with people and participate as much as possible in social activities. The social support of others is incredibly important.
  4. You should pursue your interests. You may find yourself thinking: “I just don’t understand this country, but at least I go to pottery class.”

Example of culture shock

Before coming to Denmark, Anna lived in Sweden for three years. At first she took a course on Sweden and Swedish mentality, which helped her a lot. But then her father died and she was of course very sad.

If she had been in Latvia, people would have asked her how she was doing and whether she needed any help. But in Sweden, the only question people asked was “How was the funeral?”

You just don’t ask that question in Latvia, so it came as a huge culture shock to Anna. She found herself alone in northern Sweden without any close friends to talk to. But her everyday routines helped and she made sure to have something to do every day until she felt better.

Culture shock - Copenhagen Language Center
Illustration by Chiara Nicola

Culture and yoghurt

“Culture is like yoghurt – the thing that makes it so great is alive,” says Anna.

In other words, the people who live in a place are who shape the culture of that place. We asked Anna if there is anything particularly difficult about coming to Denmark and “eating Danish yoghurt”?

She pointed to three things:

  1. Danes are not as accustomed to understanding people who speak with an accent as in many other countries.
  2. Foreigners experience the Danish “Jantelov”, which means that it’s difficult to be a part of things if you don’t participate in certain ways.
  3. In Denmark, people typically form their social networks at a young age. This can make it difficult to form a network in Denmark at a later time.

One must always be careful when speaking in generalised terms. But some people say that the Scandinavian countries are like a coconut: “Hard to get into, but once you do, you’re in for good.”

Giorgio Rossi - culture shock

by Giorgio Rossi (Italy, DU3 module 4)

The first time I visited Denmark was in October 2013. After that, I came to Copenhagen many times, but only for short visits. Eventually, I moved to Denmark in June 2014 to live with my girlfriend.
 
At first, it was like being on holiday. It was summer and the weather was wonderful – it was warm and sunny every day. Everything was new to me. I was constantly seeing places and things that I had never seen in my home country, like the windmills. It was also a little strange to be close to the sea while having the same climate and plants as in the mountains of Italy.
 
I don’t think I’ve suffered a major culture shock. Life in Denmark is more or less like in northern Italy, even though Danes are not as open to foreigners as Italians are. I might have had a harder time if I had come from southern Italy, because those two cultures are more different from each other.
 
I’ve had some periods of frustration because of everyday problems, such as not having a job or having to change some of my habits. But eventually things improved and I got a job and made new friends.
Ayoob Henry John Farah

by Ayoob Henry John Farah (Jordan, DU3 module 3)

When I arrived in Denmark in January 2014, I was happy, excited and curious about what my new life would be like.
 
At first, everything went well for me. I got a job as a bartender after just three weeks. I was so happy and I thought it would stay that way. But after five months, things changed. My boss would suddenly only pay me under the table and he wouldn’t give me any days off, so I quit.
 
Then I applied for a lot of different jobs, but it was hard to find work and things started going downhill. It took me four months to get through a period full of frustrations, because I was very sad and tired, both physically and mentally.
 
I just isolated myself at home and didn’t feel like talking to anybody. And yet, even though I was feeling bad, the situation motivated me to move forward and think outside the box.
 
I came up with the idea of starting my own company and my dream now is to be self-employed. I haven’t succeeded yet, but I’m working on it, and I hope that I can get to the next step in my integration: Adaptation.
Aurelio Raposo

by Aurelio Raposo (Brazil, DU3 module 3)

When I first came to Denmark, everything was exciting and wonderful. I was fascinated by everything. The weather, the city, the people – everything was new and interesting. But after a while, everything became almost normal and that’s when all the challenges began.
 
I was frustrated and didn’t really feel like I belonged among all of these new things. I missed my family, my country and my culture. And I couldn’t communicate with people because I couldn’t speak English or Danish. So I stayed home every day and studied both English and Danish.
 
I started going to Danish classes and playing music with some Brazilian musicians. This helped me establish a good routine. I started playing music, going out on the town to meet people and visiting my girlfriend’s family.
 
Today, I feel at home. I’ve overcome all of the challenges, little by little. I just got a job where I can speak Danish and teach children music at an after school centre. And I’m slowly getting accustomed to the Danish culture. Denmark has become my second home and I feel really good about being here.
Esther Ferrer Sánchez

by Esther Ferrer Sánchez (Spain, DU3 module 4)

I moved to Denmark because my boyfriend is Danish and he has a job here. I finished my studies last year, so we decided to begin our new life together in Denmark.

I’ve lived in Copenhagen for a year and a half, and now I can say that I’ve been through the three phases of culture shock.

At first, everything was new and exciting and really fun. But after a while, I became depressed. I was sad and missed my family and friends.

Although I’m usually a very active person, I was just staying at home all the time. The weather didn’t help either, because it rained and snowed a lot. But then I began getting used to the different traditions and established a daily routine.

It’s really important to learn Danish if you want to get by in Denmark. It’s also a good way to make friends – and a social network is important to feeling at home in a new country.

The many new experiences I’ve had have really changed me. Overall, I’m really happy with my new life in Denmark.

Your experiences in Denmark

How about you? What was it like for you when you moved to Denmark? Was it difficult? And what was interesting or fun? Leave a comment and tell us about your culture shock!

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  • diya

    i am not visited denmark till yet just experienced your thoughts and the suggestion assistance me which you are giving every country has his own culture so adopting other culture is a kind of big deal and have to sacrifice alot 🙂

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