This is the fourth in an ongoing contributor series by Stephanie Brown. You can read the first part here. Check back next issue for the next chapter of The Long Commute.
So let’s talk about an issue that’s close to my heart: culture shock. I know you’re thinking, “That won’t happen to me.” Yeah, I thought the same thing when I was still in Canada. It’s easy to feel that way, especially when you are traveling to another English-speaking country. It’s easy to buy into the notion that the transition will be easier because you don’t have a language barrier. I can now stand back and state without a doubt that the adjustment into an English-speaking country can be even more difficult.
Sure, you speak the same language, but it’s that very fact that stops you from preparing for the different kind of English they might speak, and the completely different culture attached to the speaker. The main things I have noticed are small. For example, an extension cord is an extension lead, a line-up is a queue, and so on. Sometimes it’s easier if you go to a country where you don’t speak the language at all—it’s easier because everything is different so it’s consistent. It’s these small differences that grab your attention and cause confusion when you aren’t expecting it, like tripping on your own foot, or a fork in the road you weren’t prepared for. The problems arise from the cultural gap—there isn’t a lot of patience for English-speaking students who appear to struggle with English. Mohammad, a fellow student, mentioned that culturally, “They expect you to just know,” especially if you do speak English. This leads to the ultimate shock from the cultural difference.
In this scenario, the shock came out of a state of perceived judgement. It was easy for me to interpret the British culture’s anti-social behaviour as judgemental. I found it extremely difficult to strike up conversations with people, or engage at all, and instantly thought it was because they knew I was foreign. It ruined my first few weeks as I struggled to assimilate, trying to be accepted. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t judgement, it was a social cultural difference. The English just don’t strike up conversations with a stranger on the bus as much as Canadians do. They also make very little eye contact if they don’t know you well, and so my overt attentiveness was unsettling for them.
So what did I learn? In the process of thinking everyone here hated me, I was actually creeping them out by trying too hard to make eye contact and initiate interaction. The trick to avoiding culture shock is realizing and accepting, that there’s probably a completely different culture in your host country. Make no assumptions, and keep an open mind.