Not all cultures share the same beliefs and values about what is normal or socially acceptable. These differences can cause severe culture shock. It’s a term that people throw around but often don’t understand. Here are some examples of situations that can cause culture shock and turn your perfect holiday into an uncomfortable and frustrating situation.
Welcome to your new country: People do things differently here.
Don’t underestimate the power of culture shock -that disconnect between what you expect and what you experience when visiting another culture. Even seasoned travellers experience varying degrees of culture shock.
Some travellers, like Japanese tourists, experience an extreme form of culture shock when they visit Paris, called the “Paris syndrome.” These wide-eyed tourists arrive with over-romanticized images of Paris, only to find a version of Paris they never expected. Pickpockets, dirty streets and rude servers.
When culture shock strikes, it either hits you right away, or it can slowly eat away at you, leaving you feeling anxious, nervous, confused, overwhelmed, disgusted, angry and homesick.
10 Real Examples Of Culture Shock
I’ve put together ten real examples of culture shock. As you read through them, imagine how you might react or feel in these situations. Some may SHOCK YOU, some may not, but if you’re not accustomed to these differences, it’s completely normal to experience some form of culture shock.
1) Food Culture Shock
Travelling to a new culture means seeing things on the menu which you never anticipated eating. You may even see something that you find disgusting but is considered a delicacy in other countries.
Even if you think you’re an adventurous eater, these unfamiliar eating conditions, food customs and strange new dishes can lead to feelings of discomfort and culture shock.
Here are some examples of foods different cultures eat that may send you over the deep end.
- In some countries like Thailand and Africa, people eat wild field Rats roasted on a stick.
- In China and some Chinese restaurants around the world, eating chicken feet is common, especially at Dim sum restaurants.
- Although not an everyday food item, horse meat and blood sausage (boudin) are normal in France.
- Smalahove (Sheeps Head): A Norwegian recipe of sheepshead, usually eaten on the Sunday before Christmas.
- Some restaurants in Asian cultures specialize in dog meat dishes. However, recently in Cambodia, animal rights activists have gained a small victory in their effort to end the trade in dog meat.
- Fifty years ago, the idea of consuming raw fish such as sushi was appalling to most westerners.
- Some people that visit restaurants in the US and Canada find portions shockingly large.
Culinary culture shock tip:
Expect food to be different. You don’t have to scarf down every new and strange thing you see, but at the same time, choosing not to eat could insult your hosts or make a bad impression. Use good judgement and don’t insult people by making disgusted facial expressions. You’ll not only offend the locals, but you’ll also look ignorant.
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2) Language barriers can cause culture shock
In cultures where you don’t speak the language, simple tasks suddenly become more complicated- like riding a subway, ordering food at a restaurant or calling the cable company to tell them your box isn’t working.
The continued frustration you feel from not being able to communicate can lead to culture shock: feelings of frustration, helplessness and confusion.
This is what happened to me in my first three months in Japan.
Imagine being in a country like Japan, where the language and the alphabet are entirely different.
You jump on the subway or bus, but you can’t read the signs, and no one speaks English. You could take a taxi, but how would you tell the driver where to go if you don’t speak Japanese? Grunt like a monkey while pointing wildly?
I remember feeling helpless and frustrated at my inability to understand anything. Everything took extra time to figure out. I felt anxious about asking for directions because I couldn’t understand what the other person was saying. At times I didn’t want to go out because it took too much effort.
Over time, I adjusted and accepted that everything would take extra effort, including trying to decipher food packages at the grocery store. I took extra time to figure out the words for the places I wanted to go too. I began learning Japanese, made some friends and immersed myself in their culture. It’s what made my stay in Japan so enjoyable. Speaking the local language removed some language barriers and gave me the confidence to explore Japan fearlesslessly, despite my inability to communicate fluently.
Language culture shock tip:
Don’t assume people speak your language. I’ve seen this happen many times throughout my travels.
Learn a few keywords and phrases before you go.
3) Nudity in public and boobs on the beach
Nudity in public is one of those things that makes certain cultures very uncomfortable.
In some countries such as France, topless sunbathing and nude beaches are the norm. Women of all ages in their 20’s to grandmothers in their 80’s parade around topless as if nothing could be more natural.
It’s also not that difficult to find nude beaches. My daughter and I stumble across them quite often when we take strolls at the beach near our house.
At Cap d’Agde in the south of France, located one hour southwest of our home in Montpellier, is a world-famous Cap d’Agde naturist resort. Nothing on this scale exists anywhere else in the world.
At the pool my husband used to swim at in Hyères France, some women slid into the pool then removed their tops, which initially shocked my husband. It eventually became the norm for him, and he barely even noticed.
Nudity culture shock tip:
You don’t need to go topless at the beach but don’t act as if you’ve never seen a pair of breasts, and for goodness sake, don’t stare. You’ll get used to it, and then it just becomes no big deal.
(pictured above: My husband sleeping at the beach next to a topless woman)
4) Modesty culture shock: Clothing, burqa’s and the way people dress
At the other end of the (nudity) spectrum are women who cover most of their body, including their arms, legs, ankles, hands, neck and sometimes face. This includes many women from Muslim countries whose custom is to dress this way, mainly to enforce female modesty and sometimes for religious reasons.
I’ll admit, I had a bit of culture shock when I first saw someone wearing a Burka, which first happened in France, a place where I never anticipated seeing this. I remember feeling confused,
France has a large Muslim community, so it’s pretty common to see Muslim women wearing headscarves. In 2010, France banned any clothing covering the face, including Burkas and Niqab’s; nevertheless, it’s estimated that 2000 Muslim women in France still wear them. This is a very controversial subject in France and many parts of Europe.
Clothing culture shock tip:
Do some research about attire before you go. You may discover certain things are inappropriate and gain a better understanding as to why these cultural differences exist.
I met the woman above in Marseille (she is wearing a hijab)
5) Hygiène Culture shock:
Humans have come a long way when it comes to hygiene. But what you consider good hygiene may not matter in other cultures.
Horking and Spitting on the sidewalk:
Some Asian cultures, such as Korean and Chinese, openly spit on the sidewalk. Not normal Spitting, a loud, guttural spit that sounds phlegmy. It’s called horking. Like when you want to spit a big loogie.
Blowing your nose on the street
Many cultures are taught from an early age that it’s just not polite to pick a winner. One must use a tissue or handkerchief and blow our nose into it, and then put the tissue in your pocket until you can dispose of it later.
Theodora, a single mom who was travelling the world with her son, said that in some parts of Asia, “the thought of blowing your nose into a tissue and saving it for later is disgusting. Instead, many people cover one nostril and blow out the other nostril, so whatever is up there will get blown out like a projectile and hopefully land on the ground.”
TIP: People from different cultures view hygiene differently.
6) Toilet customs culture shock
Using a toilet in another country can lead to some of your biggest culture shock moments simply because you don’t know what to do or how to use the toilet. Not all of these situations are bad.
When I lived in Japan, I was surprised to learn that many bathrooms were squatting toilets. If you’re fortunate, there was a pole you could grab onto to keep your balance while you did your business.
On the flip side, I was pleasantly surprised that there were also public toilets with bidets and electric buttons you could push. Those were the days.
Toilets with no seat covers or lids:
In France, Italy and Greece, many toilets have no toilet seats. My understanding is that people used to stand on toilet seats while they peed because they didn’t want to sit directly on them. Many of the toilet seats broke, but no one wanted to replace them. And now, some businesses and restaurants prefer to order their toilets without the liftable seat.
Don’t flush the toilet paper, put it in the rubbish bin:
Many countries, especially in Central and South America, ask that you not flush used toilet paper in the toilet. Some hotels have signs asking guests to throw their toilet paper in the waste bin and NOT the toilet. The main reason is the septic systems in these areas can’t handle anything other than human waste.
Using your hands instead of toilet paper:
I know what you’re thinking. Use your hands to wipe poo from your bum?
In some Asian countries such as Thailand, India, parts of Africa and some Muslim countries such as Morocco, using water and your hands, not toilet paper, is considered much cleaner than using toilet paper and the preferred way to get a squeaky clean derriere.
Think of it like this. If you had poo on your arm, would you take a piece of toilet paper to wipe it off and call it a day? No, you wouldn’t. That would be like smearing it all over your arm. Instead, you would probably use soap and water to wash it clean.
TIP: Learn about toilet customs before you go. The differences in customs are usually for practical reasons.
Here is how to use a toilet without toilet paper
If you find yourself in a country where restrooms don’t supply you with toilet paper, here’s what you can expect and what you should do.
- There is usually a bucket full of water with a ladle or scoop. Sometimes there will be a hose, but not always.
- Scoop out some water and pour it on your rear while cleaning yourself with your other hand.
- After it is all said and done, wash your hands with soap.
When we went to Thailand, I made sure to carry some toilet paper in my
Watch this video of Wilbur Sargunaraj explaining the whole process.
7) Tipping culture shock:
If you’re from North America (Canada and the US), you know exactly what to do at a restaurant when you pay for the meal. You leave a 15 to 20 percent tip. More if you had exceptional service, less if you had lousy service.
In France and other parts of Europe, that’s not the case. Not knowing how much to tip, when to tip and when not to tip caused me a lot of anxiety during my first few months living in France.
8) Poverty culture shock
There is poverty all over the world, but it never seems real until you experience it firsthand.
- The number of homeless beggars and shantytowns in France was a big shock to me.
- When I returned to Thailand (my place of birth), I was shocked by the conditions my aunts were living in.
- When we went to Cambodia, we stopped at the killing fields and drove through some small towns where the children asked for food and gifts.
Witnessing poverty in the streets and on your travels is heartbreaking. As a visitor, it can be hard to know what to do.
Tip: Donate to local charities, volunteer.
9) Strange celebrations and customs:
There are customs and rituals around the world that would make many of us scratch our heads and maybe even recoil in disgust.
Jennifer and Tony Miller were in Thailand during their family world travel tour, where they saw the annual Phuket vegetarian festival. The festival lasts nine days during the ninth Chinese lunar month, which can fall in September or October. People participating in this festival engage in extreme acts of self-mutilation, driving swords, spears, tubes and other sharp objects through their cheeks and other body parts.
Most travellers and tourists would probably be quite horrified to watch this festival and wonder, “WHY?”. But this festival holds special meaning to the locals as a way to purify their souls.
If you are interested in seeing Jennifer’s photo essay about this festival, you should go and read about it on her blog. Just remember, you may not like what you see.
An age-old tradition that results in the deaths of thousands of bulls every year is bullfighting in Spain and some parts of Europe.
There’s nothing more shocking than watching a slender little bullfighter stab a bull, watch the bull bleed profusely, after which men on horseback drag the dead bull around the bullring while the crowd applauds.
Animal rights groups in Europe have tried to get Spain to ban bullfighting but so far, no such luck. It’s been banned in France since 2015.
TIP to deal with unusual customs:
Every culture has its customs and rituals. To the rest of the world, they may seem strange, but it has special meaning to them. Learn about their customs to get a better understanding. It doesn’t mean you have to like it. As in the bullfighting example, there are some customs which even locals are fighting against.
10) Dog Poop- Accepting the unacceptable social norms
There is no worse feeling than taking a stroll and stepping in a hot pile of dog dung. That disgusting stench that’s released and won’t go away no matter how much you try to scrape the bottom of your shoe on the curb or in the grass.
France has had a bad reputation for all the dog poop, and guess what? There really is an exceedingly large amount of dog dung everywhere.
I remember hearing about the dog poo problem in France, but knowing and experiencing firsthand are two completely different things. Even French people hate dop poop and know they have a problem. Why else would there be avertissements announcing a 50 euro fine for not picking up after your dog?
It took about a year for me to adjust and take on the French attitude towards the dog poo problem, which is…I don’t have to like it, but I don’t have to get frustrated or angry either. I tolerate it and say, “That’s just the way it is; what can I do?” C’est la vie!
What Can You Do About Culture Shock?
If you’re up for the challenge of experiencing other cultures, learning their values, customs and beliefs, travelling to other countries can be rewarding.
Depending on where you travel to, culture shock is a normal and manageable part of travelling.
Try to remain open-minded and patient as you hone your cultural awareness skills without passing judgement. It’s also important to understand the history and reasons why these cultural differences exist. Look at it as a learning experience to gain a fresh perspective and develop a better understanding of that other culture and respect those differences.
It’s these differences that make travel so compelling.
And one last thing. It’s important not to set your expectations too high. For example, people often have over-romanticized visions of what France is like only to visit France and be severely disappointed. I wrote a whole article on the subject called Stop Idolizing France! It’s Time To Adjust Your Expectations.
Do you or someone you know idolize French culture or have a romanticized vision of France? Here’s a look at what it’s really like living in France. Unfortunately, reality seldom measures up to the picture-perfect image we fall in love with. I should know.
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