Man wearing a backpack stands with his back to the camera, a busy market visible in the background
What seemed exotic from home can feel really strange once you're in a foreign land, and this can lead to anxiety that ranges from mild to severe.
Photo Credit: iStockPhoto / chalabala

How to Overcome Culture Shock and Enjoy Your Trip

It’s Okay to Take a Step Back

Part of what makes travel so rewarding is the chance to experience a place that is different from what we are accustomed to at home. But that same experience can often feel rather uncomfortable, something that’s commonly referred to as “culture shock.”

What seemed exotic from home, feels really strange once you’re in this foreign land, and it could lead to anxiety that ranges from mild to severe. You might feel angry, irritable, confused or a combination of all three, causing you to withdraw and hole up in your hotel room.

Fortunately there are a number of ways of dealing with culture shock, before those feelings get the best of you, and possibly even ruin what could be a positive, life-changing experience.

Meet Someone There Before You Go

These days, the internet makes it possible to get to know just about anyone, anywhere around the world. If you can make friends, or at least acquaintances, with someone from your intended destination before you go, it can be one of the best things for combating culture shock.

You’ll have a special insider to turn to if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation or don’t understand how something works. It’s kind of like having your own personal local culture dictionary.

There are lots of options for connecting with someone new online. One idea is to join a forum related to a particular interest you have. Then snoop around and see if any members are from the country you’ll be visiting.

You could also post on Facebook and ask your friends if they might know someone.

Another great option is to join Couchsurfing, a global community that spans 14 million people in over 200,000 cities. It connects travelers with people willing to share their homes, or simply meet up and show you around.

If you’re already in your destination, never fear. There are plenty of easy ways to meet people while traveling, so you can join forces with another traveler or meet a local who can lend you a hand.

Learn as Much as You Can About the Culture Before You Go

It’s a good idea to prepare ahead of time by conducting lots of research. The last thing you want is to discover some surprising cultural customs upon your arrival to your destination.

Buy or borrow books, search online and even post questions on sites such as TripAdvisor to learn more about others’ experiences with things like day-to-day life, transportation, etiquette, holidays and more.

If you don’t speak the language, be sure to add a translator app to your smartphone, or bring a language dictionary. Try to learn at least a bit of the language; it won’t be easy and you may feel like you’re a 2-year-old learning to speak, but locals will appreciate the effort.

Learning a bit of the language will not only allow you to function better, but will also give you more insight into the culture.

Dig deep! The differences that cause culture shock are more often unseen and therefore more likely to be overlooked, including perceptions, attitudes, values and beliefs. In fact, sometimes you don’t even have to leave your home country to experience culture shock, due to the striking differences in these things that can vary greatly from one region of the nation to another.

Explore the Area

Once you’ve arrived, take time to explore your surroundings. Pick up a local map, get familiar with where the major streets and attractions are, and then take a walk.

Getting to know the area you’ll be staying in will help make it start to feel more familiar. Don’t be afraid to ask a local for help should you get lost. Oftentimes you’ll learn even more than you asked in the process.

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Do Something Big or Small That Takes Courage Every Day

When you’re visiting another culture, you’ll be surrounded by opportunities for adventure, big or small. Try to do something that takes courage every single day and it will help boost your self-confidence while easing culture shock.

It could mean doing something as simple as making a trip to the grocery store. Instead of looking at it as a chore, consider it an adventure to discover the interesting differences that await. This is something that’s great to practice before you leave for greater confidence as well as while you’re there.

Do Something Familiar

If it all gets to be too much, one way to overcome culture shock is by doing something familiar that will make you feel more at ease again. Listen to music in your own language that makes you feel good, or watch one of your favorite movies.

There may even be a restaurant that serves one of your favorite meals. Sometimes all it takes to feel more comfortable is to be involved in something that feels more like “home.”

Take Care of Yourself

Being in a new and totally different place can be exhausting and stressful, but taking care of yourself can make that less taxing on your body and mind. Be sure to get quality rest by aiming for seven to eight hours of sleep each night, get regular exercise, eat a nutritious diet and drink plenty of water.

Try to limit the alcohol you consume to a moderate amount. If you’re not feeling your best, it’s much easier for culture shock to set in.

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