Culture Shock

Someone asked me to explain culture shock to them, a few weeks back. After thinking about it for a while, I figured out what it is – at least in my Danish experience.

To me, culture shock is the complete lack of security in one’s actions and behaviors in a new culture.  It’s the sum total of all of your insecurities coming to the surface, when you realise that all of those things you’ve learned about how to behave and how to interact with the world have suddenly been taken away.

It’s not one big thing.  It’s really just a million little details.  Do you shake people’s hands when you meet them?  Are the things you say going to be misunderstood?  Is it rude to not say please when asking for things?  How do you fill a prescription at the drug store?  How do you get on the bus? What store sells the items you’re looking for?  Why aren’t there bathtubs anywhere in the country?

Every little thing you’d learned about the world has to be re-framed into a new context – from the small to the big.  All the details you’ve taken for granted are suddenly clearly highlighted as peculiarities of the region you’ve just left, and you can never be sure about what to expect.

In fact, that sums up yesterday’s experience quite well: At noon, hundreds of alarms all went off at once, filling the air with the sound of air raid sirens.  Being alone in the office, at the time, I had no idea what to do about it.  In fact, I simply decided to ignore it.  No one outside appeared to be panicking, so why should I?

When my colleagues returned from lunch, I asked them what was going on, and was given the perfectly reasonable answer that “at noon on the first Wednesday in may of every year, all of the warning sirens in Denmark are tested, of course.”   Just in case they ever need to warn about chemical spills, invading Germans or otherwise.

Like everything else, since moving to Denmark, it appeared to me to be totally unexpected and out of place.  I couldn’t have predicted it, and there was no warning that it was going to happen.  At the end of the day, I just have to rely on my ability to not be phased fazed by anything going on, and try to figure out – once it’s over – what happened.
And that is exactly what culture shock is about – the never ending feeling that you can only react to events around you, and you have no idea what or when they’ll happen.


6 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. Hi,
    I can totally relate to this. Very well summarized. Your experience with the sirens made me realized that I haven’t heard for almost 4 years, and they are tested every month in France (every first Wednesday at noon, for the record, and if I recall correctly).
    I totally agree with what you explain, but I consider it a very positive experience: you constantly discover new things, little differences. I like it, even if it can sometimes be annoying…

    • Thanks, I’m glad all of that made sense to someone other than me.

      Actually, while I probably gave the impression that it’s all negative, it really isn’t – but it is a challenge that you face on a daily basis. After 4 months, I’m starting to find my bearings again: Trips to the grocery store are starting to feel a bit familiar, and I no longer have to whip out my smartphone to translate every single item at the grocery store. (-;

      We’re even finding a few Danish things that we like!

      Of course, an aweful lot of the improvements we’ve had recently have to do with moving into a house in which we feel comfortable in a neighborhood closer to amenities, but that’s another topic for another blog post!

  2. Not to be too nit-picky, but it is ‘fazed’ not ‘phased’.

    Sort of on topic, I have been thinking a lot about older adults. My parents are approaching the age where a nursing home could be in their future. But how does a person adjust to such a change. It isn’t as bad as a different culture but, never-the-less, there will be all sorts of new “culture shock” for them to deal with. Hard. Especially when the change is not because of something new and better happening.

    • Oops. You’re right – it is fazed. Thats what I get for spending all my time reading in Danish. Pretty soon I’m going to forget the rest of the English I know…

      Anyhow, you make an interesting point. I guess culture shock can also hit when your own culture changes too quickly – something I hadn’t considered before.

      I wonder if we’ll fare as well as our parents at their age, given the changes they’ve seen.

  3. I lived in Copenhagen for nearly nine years. Culture shock set in pretty early for me; the first week I was there, my Danish girlfriend suggested I visit her for lunch at the university, and afterwards, I sat in with her on one of her physics classes (she was just finishing here bachelor’s at the time). And of course, I understood nothing. I’d spent a couple of years, on and off, working in Berlin, but always with English-speaking colleagues. For the first time, I didn’t understand a single thing that anyone was saying, and it was a most disturbing experience. Later, I learned to embrace it — it’s strangely liberating not to understand people’s random chat on the bus, or to pass a shop and have to guess what they’re selling! And then, when you *do* start to pick up the language and feel comfortable with the culture, it’s incredibly rewarding. I live in San Francisco now, and recently I overheard a couple of tourists chatting at the bus stop. I not only recognized them as being Danish, but could tell that they had Aarhus accents — they were quite surprised when, in my Copenhagen accent, I said hello, and asked them if they were having a nice time in the city :)

    • That’s awesome. I really hope that one day I can surprise people and say something coherent in Danish. For the moment, I’m just very happy when I understand a commercial, or a few things here or there overheard in conversations.

      And, for the record, the Copenhagen accent is WAY easier than the Aarhus accent, in my humble opinion. Congrats on understanding an Aarhusian couple. (-:

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