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.