Culture Shock: 5 Tips To Make It Easier

Aya Kurteva

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Read Time: 5 minutes

We are human. We seek comforts that we know will make us feel better – whether that’s ordering extra garlic sauce with your Domino’s pizza while watching The Great British Bake Off or, in my case, trying to cook my grandmother’s stuffed minced peppers from wherever I am in the world (rather unsuccessfully, I might add).

Our dependence on these comforts really comes to the surface when we are placed in new environments. We don’t realise how our way of doing things becomes an ingrained part of who we are. One day, we are (semi) functioning adults, and then the next we find ourselves halfway across the world, not even knowing how to buy a pint of milk. 

This is what we call culture shock. 

There are countless things that contribute to our experience of a place, with things like language being the most obvious. But what about smaller, everyday differences like weather, meal times, workplace environments and daily patterns of doing things? 

I remember receiving my job offer to teach in 40-degree Mexico while waiting for a bus in minus 10-degree snow in Bulgaria. The idea of being in a sunny place a month later got me so excited. What I didn’t realise was that it was always that hot. Every. Single. Day. It was perfect and I loved it, but it took a few months for my body to adjust to the constant sweating and the odd shade of red I always seemed to be for the better part of 6 months. Nobody tells you that at 2 pm the heat can feel like 50 degrees, meaning trying to stay awake in that haze after lunch is a near-impossible feat. Naps need to be incorporated into your daily routine. Small things like this affect our lives so much more than we can ever imagine and can cause a lot of underlying stress. 

Culture shock feels like something I go through all the time. I’m Bulgarian but I grew up in South Africa. Coming home from school into a very Bulgarian household felt like a culture shock every day, not to mention the fact that I then moved to the UK when I was fourteen. It showed me that the tiniest differences can feel like an enormous culture shock. For example, in Cape Town it wasn’t normal to just walk to your nearest shop to buy a packet of crisps: everything was spread out in such a way that you needed a car to get around. In Brighton and Leeds, going to Tesco in my pyjamas became a new norm that I never knew was possible. Little things like this all add up to create very distinct experiences.

So, whether you’re starting university or getting ready to move to a new country, here are my top four tips to make the experience a little less overwhelming.

Kristofer Gilmour’s TED talk defines it like this: the cross-cultural adjustment stress of a new place. I think this is an extremely accurate definition of the feeling of culture shock.”

1. Self-awareness

Figure out what brings comfort to you. Notice your pattern of doing things; how often you like to be outside, what food you eat, what you do to unwind. This way, you can choose places which suit your personality best. For me, I need sunlight and outdoor activity to feel my best. I try to choose places where I won’t need a jacket and I can cycle around the city. I know that I wouldn’t be content in a very cold country because it doesn’t correspond to the things which usually make me happy.

BUT (notice the capital letters), there is a difference between sticking to the things you know are good for your well-being and sticking to things just because they are familiar. After all, we get culture shock from things that are unfamiliar, but unfamiliar doesn’t necessarily equal bad. This is why self-awareness is so important. When you know your own patterns and what you can comfortably change, the process of exploring new places isn’t so stressful. My newfound love of cycling is an example of this. Before Mexico, the idea of getting on a bike through busy traffic terrified me. After doing it for a year, I realised there really wasn’t a better way of getting around a place for me. I had been scared of it because it was unfamiliar to me. As soon as I got back to Bulgaria, I bought a bike and continued doing the same.

2. Try everything once

This is directly linked to my last point. New things in new places are scary. Changing your routine is scary. However, nothing bad can happen from giving something a try, even if you realise it’s not your cup of tea. Controversial, I know, but take beans on toast for example. I will never understand beans on toast until the day I die – to the horror of my English friends. However, I tried sprinkling sugar on bean stew like a friend in Nairobi showed me, and it’s surprisingly delicious. Try it. Say yes!

“It’s also important to remember that culture shock doesn’t just apply across borders, but places within our home countries as well. Going to university is a culture shock. Changing your job is a culture shock. It means doing new things in a new environment, wherever that environment may be.”

3. Get lost

During my first few days in any new place, I make an effort to walk around and lose myself in the streets. Everything is already so new, so taking it step by step (literally) can slow things down and help you to get your bearings. Usually, the idea of your first day in a new place is daunting. That’s why starting with something small like a walk with no fixed destination allows you to get the feel of a place before you really sink your teeth into it a few days later. 

4. Be informed

You will never know everything about a place. There are even things in our hometowns that we know nothing about, it’s completely normal! I think part of exploring the world is accepting that there are some things we will never understand. However, the more we read and ask questions, the easier a lot of things will be. Make sure to ask people who have been or people from there what it’s like, read blogs and watch videos online. Knowledge is power.

As intimidating as it all may be, the sense of excitement and adventure felt by packing your life in a bag and heading to a new place is phenomenal. Bring on the culture shock!

5. Respect

This one is vital. What is normal for you is what you’ve been doing continuously for years. For somebody else, they have lived an entire life up until this point doing something slightly different. What does this mean? It means ‘normal’ does not exist. 

Always be respectful of things you learn along the way, even if you don’t understand or agree with them. After all, we are all in this big fishbowl of a planet together- let’s teach one another.


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