The following comes from a book that I want to challenge all of you to read. Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries.

What causes this psychological unrest when we enter a new culture? It is not, as we might suspect, the sight of poverty and dirt. Nor is it the fear of illness, although those in culture shock are often preoccupied with cleanliness and health.

Culture shock is the disorientation we experience when all the cultural maps and guidelines we learned as children no longer work.

Stripped of our normal ways of coping with life, we are confused, afraid, and angry. We rarely know what has gone wrong, much less what to do about it.

Culture shock strikes most people who enter deeply into new cultures and afflcts not only Westerners who go abroad. Africans experience it when they move to the United States, just as do Koreans when they move to Indonesia. Some have serious cases of it. Others have mild attacks. The severity depends upon the extent of the differences between the cultures, the personality of the individual, and the methods used to cope with the new situations.

What are some of the symptoms and causes, and how does the disease progress? (Myron Loss [1983] has given us an excellent summary of culture shock, and I owe much here to his insights.)

Language Shock

The first shock we often experience in a new culture is our inability to communicate. Ever since our early childhood, we have talked, gestured, written, and talked some more-until we are no longer aware of the communication processes themselves. They have become almost automatic.

Suddenly, as strangers in a new world, we are stripped of our primary means of interacting with other people. Like children, we struggle to say even the simplest things, and we constantly make mistakes. Describing this, William Smalley (1978:698) writes:

Even after weeks of study [the missionary] is unable to discuss much more than the price of a pound of potatoes. He is unable to display his education and intelligence, the symbols which gave him status and security back home. He meets intelligent and educated people but he responds to them like a child or an idiot because he is not capable of any better response….

The language learner has the uneasy feeling that people are laughing behind his back-and they are. His study is tiring, boring, frustrating. Nothing seems to go logically or smoothly, because logic is identified with familiar ways of talking and thinking. It is based on his language and academic tradition.

Many an overseas American who started out to learn a language has ended by rejecting it. The pattern of rejection sometimes means less and less study; the development of more and more English contacts. Sometimes it means illness, genuine physical illness.

Some people believe they simply cannot learn a new language. Others have a mental block against practicing things they do not understand or cannot do well. But you cannot learn a language without making mistakes and without practicing it until you are familiar with it. Language shock can catch people in a vicious cycle-unable to learn, unable to get along without learning. Trapped, they seek some way out. Smalley continues:

(They] cling to the crutch of translation and desperately try to find out how to translate the things they want to say from English into the local language, and they let this substitute for a knowledge of the language, fooling themselves into thinking that because they have learned how to make the equivalents of some English statements (even “preaching” full sermons), they know the language. Through this process they have missed whole portions of it, having cut these off by their insistence upon approaching it through English. And the portions they have missed are ever-present sources of anxiety as they miss much of what is going on around them.

Some never learn the local language and work all their lives abroad through translators-in some cases for forty years or more!

Changes in Routine

Another frustration we face in culture shock is change in daily routine. In our home culture we carry out efficiently such tasks as shopping, cooking, banking, laundering, mailing, going to the dentist, and getting a Christmas tree, leaving ourselves time for work and leisure. In a new setting, even simple jobs take a great deal of psychic energy and more time, much more time. It takes two or three times as long to cook our meals in some countries, because we must light wood fires, and the chickens are still running around when we buy them.

Changes in Relationships
Human lives are centered around relationships with relatives, friends, colleagues at work, bosses, bank tellers, clerks, and even strangers. Through these we gain our identity within a society and an image of ourselves. When our self-perceptions conflict with the images others have of us, we work desperately to change what they are thinking. If this fails, we are forced to change the ideas we have of ourselves. Few of us can sustain our beliefs or sense of worth without constant reinforcenment from others. Even gossip is better than not to be noticed at all.

Maintaining relationships in our own culture, where we understand what is going on, is hard enough. In another culture, the task seems almost insurmountable. Our spouses and children have their own problems adjusting to a new language and culture, and they need extra attention at the very time we are crying out for help. They get on our nerves (and we on theirs), for we are thrown together in stressful situations with few outside relationships to sustain us. Other missionaries, if they are around, are often of little help because they are busy and seem so well adjusted and we are afraid to admit our weaknesses to them. After all, we now are “missionaries.” Obviously, it is we who are at fault for our inability to adjust easily to the new culture. So we draw apart, afraid to share our deep anxieties.

Building relationships with the local people is even more stressful. We can barely speak their language and do not understand the subtle nuances of their relationships. Their humor escapes us, and ours makes them frown. Trying to listen to them in normal social activities drains our energies. Even going to church, which first excited us with its novelty, becomes tedious and contributes little to our own spiritual nourishment. We are lonely and have no one with whom we can share our self-doubts.

Added to all this is our loss of identity as significant adults in the society. In our own society we know who we are because we hold offices, degrees, and memberships in different groups. In the new setting our old identity is gone. We must start all over again to become somebody. Richard McElroy (1972:inside cover) writes:

During the first week of language study the new missionary experiences “role shock.” In North America he was a leader, successful and secure. Suddenly, he is a learner, with a high school graduate teaching him Spanish phonetics-and correcting, correcting, correcting him. If the missionary does not make the role switch, he feels insecure, selfconscious and threatened. The experience brings out the worst in some students: stubbornness, rudeness, withdrawal, and hyper-criticalness.

Loss of Understanding

To become truly human is to learn a culture and understand what is going on. It is to know what to expect in life and what is expected of us. A North American knows to drive on the right side of the road, not to bargain with the clerk for sugar, and to stand in line at the ticket counter. An Indian knows the worth of a rupee, the way to bargain for a sari, and the meaning of Tirupathi Venkateswara. We need such knowledge to understand what is happening around us and to find meaning in our lives.

In a new culture much of our old knowledge is useless, if not misleading. When we point at something with a finger, the people are offended, for we have made a dirty sign. We offer help and keep quiet if the people reject it. Only later do we learn that in many societies people must always demur on the first offer and that we are expected to offer it a second time. The result is often embarrassment and confusion.

When our knowledge repeatedly fails us, we become desperate, for our lives seem to be careening out of control. In the long run, it is the sense of meaninglessness arising out of this confusion that can be the most damaging consequence of culture shock. We seem to have lost our hold on reality.

Emotional and Evaluative Disorientation

Culture shock has a cognitive dimension, but it also involves emotional and evaluative disorientation. On the emotional level, we face both deprivation and confusion. The music we hear often sounds dissonant, the food strangely spiced, and the entertainment unintelligible. We long to hear recognizable music, eat familiar food, watch the evening news on television, and go out for the type of entertainment we have “at home.” And long after we understand meanings in the new language, its fine emotional nuances such as humor, irony, sarcasm, poetry, and double entendre escape us.

We also face feelings of frustration that arise out of the cross-cultural setting. After the initial excitement of being abroad, we become homesick and begin to dislike the unfamiliar ways. We feel guilty because we cannot live up to our own expectations. We are angry because no one told us it would be this way and because we make such slow progress in adjusting to the new culture.
On the level of values, we are incensed at what appears to be a lack of morality: the lack of proper dress, the insensitivity to the poor, and what to us is obviously stealing, cheating, and bribing.

This would make for a great discussion among missionary peers and students.

Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, n.d.