How To Prepare for Culture Shock When Traveling

tourists crowd outside an asian temple

When embarking on a trip, we often think of the tangible ways we need to prepare — we pack our suitcases, let our credit card companies know we will be traveling, sometimes even get vaccinations to prepare ourselves physically.

But what about the non-physical, non-tangible ways we need to prep ourselves for a trip? We often forget to prepare ourselves for the imminent culture shock of traveling somewhere new. What is culture shock, and how can we mentally brace ourselves for it so that it becomes a positive part of our trip, rather than a negative?

What is Culture Shock?

bustling street market selling food and goods under umbrellas

Miriam-Webster defines culture shock as “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.”

Some sociologists take this term even further. In John Scott’s A Dictionary of Sociology, he notes that culture shock often refers to negative physical, cognitive, and psychological reactions to moving between societies.

Lynn Chih-Ning Chang, a doctoral student at the University of Missouri, describes her own experience with culture shock when she came from Taiwan to Tennessee. She describes herself as “stressed,” “like a lost child in the dark,” and “freaked...out.”

But culture shock doesn’t always have to be a negative experience. Experts have demonstrated that if you adequately prepare yourself mentally for your trip, culture shock can actually be a positive growing experience.

How to Prepare Yourself for Culture Shock

Understand the communication customs in the country to which you are traveling.

two people chatting while sitting next to the water

Edward T. Hall, a prominent American anthropologist, wrote that “most people’s difficulties with each other can be traced to distortions in communication.”

Therefore, to understand — and come to love a new culture — it is crucial to understand communication habits.

How do you learn about communication customs? Check out a guidebook from your local library and flip to the customs section to read up on these cultural guidelines, or do a quick search online.

Other tips include talking to friends who are from or have spent extended periods of time in those countries, and asking them what they think are the biggest differences between your native communication habits and those of that country.

Finally, if you are going to spend an extended period of time in that country, why not take a few language classes? This will help you understand the communication patterns of that country while flexing your mental muscles.

In addition to understanding communication customs, invest some time in learning key phrases in your language. Before you leave, know how to hail a taxi or rickshaw, express any dietary allergies or preferences, and ask for directions.

Bring a journal with you!

open notebook sitting on a table next to a coffee mug

The study abroad experts at Students Abroad recommend keeping a blog or journal while you are abroad to help process your feelings. As they write, journaling is “a great way to document and revisit what you are experiencing, helping you learn even more from it.”

Indeed, according to Dr. Jason Powers, journaling “clears out the bad” and “builds up the good.” Bring a journal with you and commit to journaling at specific times to revisit and reframe what you are experiencing in a new place!

Take Steps To Prevent Dietary Culture Shock

close up of street food dish on a busy street in asia

Traveling, although easy on the eyes, is often hard on the stomach. Make sure you take steps to prevent having dietary malfunctions while abroad.

Some easy ways to do this -- depending on where you are headed, avoid drinking the tap water. Instead, rely on bottled water, or the more environmentally friendly option is to invest in chlorine drops or a UV pen, or boil your water. Pro-Tip: Mapping Megan has a handy guide to check if your destination has safe water.

Make sure to use safe water when brushing your teeth, avoid drinks with ice or fresh vegetables which could potentially be washed in water, and close your mouth when showering.

In addition, avoid street foods (particularly fried foods or meats that have been sitting out for a long time).

Sometimes, however, no matter how many steps you take, some stomach troubles are inevitable. Make sure you have the name of a local traveller’s clinic before leaving.

Make a Plan to Avoid Petty Crime

two people holding american passports with monuments in the background

Crime happens everywhere. Make sure to bring the same safe practices you take in your home city to your destination abroad.

These practices include: using a luggage lock on your suitcase, not carrying anything in your back pocket (or pockets in general), and wearing your backpack around the front of your body (no matter how silly you look).

Furthermore, make sure to carry your passport in a safe place, and bring an extra scanned copy of your passport on the off-chance something happens.

Recognize that there are going to be challenges

hiker standing in mountains overlooking forests and snow-covered peaks

No matter how much you prepare, however, there are going to be challenges when embarking on a new adventure.

Make sure to recognize that, and get yourself in the right mindset for experiencing different cultures, different customs, different levels of infrastructure and development, and different sights.

One great way to get yourself in the traveler’s mindset is to repeat a mantra to yourself whenever you feel overwhelmed in a new situation. One great one is, “I am calm and at peace,” but you can write your own to best fit your circumstances and needs.

The most important tip to recognize the challenges is to give yourself time. You are not going to adjust to a new culture on day one of your trip. Cutting yourself some slack, and recognizing that it is okay to feel uneasy the first few days of the trip, takes the pressure off you and allows you to start actually enjoying the trip rather than worry about every little feeling that is coming up for you.

crowd of people crossing a busy crosswalk

Culture shock is an inherent part of traveling. But that doesn’t mean it has to take over your trip. Follow the above tips and you’ll quickly feel empowered and ready to take on a new place.

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