How to deal with a culture shock while traveling and/or volunteering abroad

How to deal with a culture shock while traveling and/or volunteering abroad

“Service to a just cause rewards the worker with more real happiness and satisfaction than any other venture of life.” - Carrie Chapman Catt.

Culture shock is defined as pronounced reaction to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move for an extended period of time into a culture different from their own. Many volunteers who are abroad for an extended period of time succumb to culture shock. Some volunteers are affected by culture shock after a period of days, some weeks and others after a few months.

Culture shock is experienced differently depending on the individual. Culture shock is not caused by a single factor but a culmination of many factors. These factors could be how the local people organize, speak, perceive, value things different from the volunteer. It is also caused by being cut off to what the volunteer is used to.

When volunteers move to a new country they experience these four phases: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery phase. Culture shock is normally felt in the negotiation and adjustment phase. Symptoms of culture shock are: excessive concern, irritability, withdrawal, homesickness, stereotyping and many others.


Here are tips to overcome culture shock:


Before the volunteer leaves home and during the first few weeks they are in the host country s/he should try and find out as much about the country as they can. They should look at guide books, read literature about the country and research on the internet. Alternatively the volunteer could speak to someone (past volunteer) who was from the country s/he is going to. The past volunteer will be better placed to advice him or her on how to handle themselves while they are abroad and also how to deal with culture shock. Getting proper knowledge will help to set the volunteers’ expectation, not too high or too low.



If the volunteer could travel with a friend it would help overcoming culture shock. The friend who is accompanying the volunteer helps them to relate and understand what s/he is going through. The friend will be able provide emotional support and help the volunteer to get through the slump. If the volunteer has traveled alone, s/he could look for other foreigners in the country and learn how they overcame culture shock. The volunteer should be careful to avoid foreigners who keeping talking about how life is at their home country. When the volunteers finds more friends their social network will be bigger and s/he will feel less isolated and would help them adjust to the new environment.


Keeping in touch

During these times when the volunteer is really being affected by culture shock, they could communicate with family and friends who are back at home. They should try and keep in touch with their friends so as not to feel isolated anymore. With the advent of technology they can call home, use Skype, facebook twitter and many other mediums to reconnect with loved ones at home. Although the volunteer shouldn’t talk too much or be too dependent on family and friends from home as this will make readjustment much harder for them in the new environment.


Reverse Culture shock

This normally happens when the volunteer moves back home after spending a long period of time in another country. The volunteer will feel the same emotions (isolation, irritation loneliness) when they get back home. They would be so used to the living conditions in the host country and when they are at home they will feel like strangers. To deal with reverse culture shock the volunteer should: reestablish relationships with their friends; share their experiences about life abroad; try to readjust to the new living conditions; recognize that the volunteer is a new person and has changed; the volunteer should allow him/ herself time to readjust; and should try and get involved with the place as early as possible.