How to Deal with Culture Shock while Volunteering Abroad
Nowadays, more and more people find it appealing to intern or volunteer abroad since they can travel and gain valuable experience at the same time. However, it takes courage and tenacity for someone to leave their comfort zone, immerse themselves in a foreign culture, and challenge their way of thinking. The way the host community does things can be very different from what one’s used to, including the language, social habits, religion, cuisine, music, and arts. These differences will give rise to culture shock. Fear of culture shock has turned many away from the volunteer abroad experience or made the experience not nearly as enjoyable as it should be. For this reason, Cross-Continental Solutions has recently released a free E-book to help overcome culture shock.
Some of the most important tips for dealing with culture shock are:
• Expect Differences and Keep an Open Mind
International volunteers travel thousands of miles to visit a foreign country. Being so far away, one certainly wouldn’t expect to see the same things as at home. Try to enjoy the opportunity and excitement; as the old saying goes “A tourist sees what he has come to see, a traveler sees what he sees”. It is important to take the perspective of a traveler or adventurer, not of a typical hotel tourist. Go with an expectation that things will be different and try to be non-judgmental.
• Think of Culture Shock as the First Step Towards Learning
Try to have a good learning attitude and think of culture shock as the first step towards cultural understanding. Remember that each culture is shaped in response to peculiar environmental challenges that differ from society to society and from country to country. If people dress or eat differently, it is most likely because it helps them to adjust to their local environment. If one has this understanding, one will be much less likely to feel offended or disturbed by local customs.
• Respect and Appreciate Cultural Diversity
It is important to see people living life in different ways if international volunteers are to expand their horizons. Keep in mind that the local people may be at a very different socio-economic development stage and have very limited access to decent education. As a result, one may find the host community to be less knowledgeable and close-minded at times. In these cases, try not to blame or think less of them. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and it’s no one’s fault to be born into a less developed community. At times certain local customs will go against one’s religious or personal beliefs. For instance, one may feel uncomfortable at the way children are treated or the way women are treated. In these cases, it is important to remember that certain changes can’t be made overnight. International volunteers are there to help the local communities at their pace, so it’s important to respect local ways of life.
• Have Cultural Exchange Conversations with the Locals
It is good to take time to learn about the local culture and understand why it works there. Talking to the local people will help gain this cultural understanding. In addition, it can also help to talk to the locals about one’s own customs as they are often extremely interested in learning about foreign cultures. It can also help the locals understand and respect foreigners more and can be a very educational experience for them. Such cultural exchanges can relieve a traveler of the anxiety they might feel about being in a foreign land. Above all, try to take a relaxed approach while talking and try not to get into aggressive right versus wrong debates with the local people.
• Try to Use Humor to Calm Oneself
Lastly, when things get too stressful, it may be helpful to use humor to keep things in perspective. If there is nothing one can do about a major cultural issue, it may help to laugh away differences that one cannot appreciate or explain. At any rate avoid becoming indifferent and alienating oneself from the culture as it will hinder one’s ability to help the local people and learn from them.
Sometimes culture shock is immediate, but other times it may arise after some time has been spent getting to know the local norms and traditions. To get the most out of any volunteer or intern abroad experience, there is a need for international travelers to be open-minded, positive, non-judgmental, and adaptable abroad. For more informative advice and resources, sign up for free E-books at www.CrossContinental.org and get great tips via email.