Culture Shock… Or Not

By Kimberly Kosta

I’ve never really liked the term “culture shock.” It always seemed overly dramatic. It never seemed appropriate to the situations it was being used in, like the emotion behind it was a child trying to dress up in mom’s oversized shoes and pearls. No, that isn’t right either…It’s like your little nephew trying to scare you by wearing his older brother’s Freddy claws and yelling: RAAAAWR! Then asking: We’re you scared? You were SO SURPRISED, right?!

Nah, not usually. But of course, to be polite you’ll always nod emphatically to be supportive. And so it often is with people’s expressive outpourings of how they’re adjusting to their new environment while abroad. Like they’ll say: “There’s so little personal space here…I guess I’ve got culture shock.”

Shock to me suggests a sense of alarm over the discrepancy between what you’re seeing and what you know. A term to use when your brain can’t reconcile the new information with the old and you’re literally dumbfounded. An example of when I thought it was used appropriately would be that time my friend was offered a little girl for companionship in a certain South East Asian country, and when he refused, a boy. (which he also turned down of course).

Seeing abject poverty, drugs or crime…hearing people’s stories of hardship and realizing it’s just their routine life…That, in my mind, can justify the term “shock,” especially if it has affected you directly. Mostly, though, I hear it being used to describe the inconveniences of a new place, the frustrations of expectations that were not met, or differences in social interactions.

When I first got to South Korea in 2007, a lot of the men wore pink. It was a surprise (actually kind of a pleasant one – no one owns a color after all), but it wasn’t “shock”. Getting used to less personal space was something new, but not “shock”. Crazy taxi drivers…okay that one I might give you since if you’ve ever experienced it, you’ve undoubtedly sprung a few grey hairs after your first few rides. I guess what I’m saying is: the word shock often doesn’t seem proportionate to the event being described by it.

I propose instead: Culture Daze. Or maybe Culture Daunt.

It’s got to be catchy, or no one will use it.

Example: “Wow, I have to look both ways before I cross the sidewalk here! (Ha, ha). I think I’m experiencing culture daunt!” Or: “My elementary students use actual blades to sharpen their pencils! Talk about culture daze!”

What do you think? Is it time to tell the emotions behind the word “shock” to put down the Freddy claws and use their indoor voice? Do we need to reign in our tendencies towards the dramatic?