Dealing With Culture Shock While Traveling

One of the things you’re likely to face at some point during your travels is culture shock – these can range from the smallest details to massive moral issues, and even on arranged group holidays it’s impossible to avoid, so it’s crucial to learn how to deal with it whenever it shows up.

I’m far from the ideal person when it comes to dealing with culture shock, but after traveling for so many years I’ve been forced to find a way that works, to avoid awkward or downright horrible consequences.

Here are a few culture clashes I’ve experienced, and how I dealt with them…

The “Smile & Laugh At It” Tradition

A couple of weeks ago I received a very interesting comment on an old post, where this person complained about how angry he gets when there are misunderstandings between him and locals, then they just laugh it off and make fun of him.

He didn’t say which country he meant, but I had a strong feeling that he was talking about Thailand.

In this country, often nicknamed “the land of smiles”, people smile and laugh at everything – especially in awkward situations.

This can sometimes be liberating, but also incredibly frustrating – the Thai people use their smiles and laugh to avoid “losing their face”, or even to help you to avoid “losing your face”.

For example, if you bump your head into a doorway, they point, smile and laugh at you – not in a rude way, but to relieve you from the embarrassment – this in the West usually means the complete opposite, and some people feel offended by it.

How To Deal With It:

Remember why they’re laughing, and the more frustrated and angry you get the more they will try to “cover up” by laughing and smiling – don’t show that you’re frustrated, instead work the other way around and smile while you try to get your point across.

The Contradictions Of Hygiene

Japan is famous as the country where burping is encouraged as a way to show gratitude to the chef – but you will find that burping is common and not at all frowned upon in many other countries too.

Whether you take morocco holidays in Africa, or travel east to India and Malaysia, you will be sitting at a restaurant, or walking the streets and almost always hear someone doing a clear, loud and proud burp.

This is not frowned upon at all, but then eating with your left hand is…

Apparently, the left hand is seen as dirty as that is the hand you use when going to the bathroom – and since they mush and mix all of their food with their fingers, they keep the left hand out of the way.

The weird part is that before sitting down to eat, they only ever wash their right hand – no wonder the left hand stays dirty..!

How do I deal with it:

Honestly, I ignore it as best as I can. I’m getting used to the burps and nose picks, and I eat the way I want – just because you’re in a foreign country that doesn’t mean that you have to do everything they do.

Value your own health above “fitting in”, and don’t be so hard on yourself – who cares if someone gives you a strange look for eating with your left hand? You know better, you know if it’s clean or not.

Oh, and I ALWAYS carry toilet paper around, I’m not getting near those hoses they have in the squat toilets!

Keep Things In Perspective

During my travels I have heard the most offensive and obscene comments thrown at me or people around me, and sometimes this is tough to deal with.

But you have to put things into perspective, and not let yourself get sucked in or bothered – because the only person who will be affected is you, besides, what you see as offensive, in their culture could actually be a compliment.

A friend of mine spent a whole year in Rwanda, and while she lost heaps of weight, her friend put on quite a lot.

The locals they got to know said to her friend “you’re so fat! You have gotten so fat lately!” – something that’s not very fun to hear as a Western person, but is actually a compliment there…

Finally, culture shocks are part of the travel experience, and one of the things that make traveling so exciting and crazy – see every culture shock as a great experience.

What kinds of culture shocks & clashes have you experienced while traveling? Share below in the comments!

20 Responses to Dealing With Culture Shock While Traveling

  1. Kaylin Elizabeth Stephens June 22, 2012 at 9:06 am #

    In Fiji, it’s the same with the “you’re so fat” comment. They were constantly criticizing most of us for being too skinny (and I’m far from “skinny” back in the US!) and only one girl they told her she was nice and fat… you know she just loved that lol.

    The left hand thing I am worried about if I ever travel in certain parts of the world because I’m left-handed! I’m fairly ambidextrous at writing and doing a few things, but I’m hopeless at feeding myself right-handed…

    • Genevieve Dwyer June 22, 2012 at 9:37 am #

      My Husband is left-handed and when we’re eating with our hands he does his best but sometimes can’t help but use it. For the most part no one seems to care.

      • Sofia - As We Travel Blog June 24, 2012 at 4:28 am #

        I agree, don’t worry about it. Most people don’t care, at least they don’t care enough to say anything, they can see that you’re a tourist and often that’s enough to understand that we have different table manners.

  2. Genevieve Dwyer June 22, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    A ‘culture shock’ that I’ve found ties into your second point where you mentioned table manners. Traveling through Asia I still can’t get used to the very, very loud chewing. Also different standards of etiquette, in particular when it comes to noises on overnight buses/trains – it’s hard sometimes to stop myself getting annoyed at the chatting on phones all night or playing games on phones with the volume up. And one last thing (didn’t realise until now there were so many!) the different standards of personal space. I absolutely love it when we get adopted by a local family, but I can’t get used to the ‘sisters’ I’ve just met constantly hugging me and resting their hands on my thighs and holding my hands.
    Phew! Sorry for the long comment haha. Most of the time these things don’t bother me at all though, and when they do the positives of travel still outweigh any negative feelings.

    • Sofia - As We Travel Blog June 24, 2012 at 4:24 am #

      Haha yes the personal space is definitely different in east compared to the west, and even between western countries this differs a lot.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with it, I can really relate to what you’re talking about!

  3. Susan June 22, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    I actually love the smile and laugh tactic here in Thailand! It’s an acknowledgement of a misunderstanding, and a resolution to just find the humor in it! It’s much better than getting angry, being ignored, etc. And try as I may, I will always be a little bit queasy when bodily fluids are thrown around without a lot of thought. I never thought I was particularly clean, but now…hand sanitizer and baby wipes are on my person at ALL times.

    • Sofia - As We Travel Blog June 24, 2012 at 4:19 am #

      Yeah I really like that they’re always close to a smile and laugh easily, but sometimes I have to admit that I miss a simple honest apology as well ;)

      I’ve recently realized just how useful baby wipes are, will never go without them again!

  4. Joaquim Rocha June 23, 2012 at 11:29 am #

    In Portugal, many, many years ago, it was also a complement to say that someone was fatter. Even today, old people might throw that at you which causes some funny embarrassment but one needs to understand when those people were young, some of them didn’t have much to eat, so if people were thin, it meant they were poorer, hence the “fat elegance”.

    • Sofia - As We Travel Blog June 24, 2012 at 4:14 am #

      That is very interesting, I had no idea that used to be the case in Portugal as well!

  5. Claus Kruger June 27, 2012 at 10:23 pm #

    I really like this site! But I have to agree that you are FAR from the ideal person when it comes to dealing with culture shock. Anglo-Saxons have problems to understand the concept of “world”. You should write an article about it!

    • Sofia @ As We Travel July 12, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

      Hey Claus,
      I’m glad to hear you like our site!
      As I’m Swedish I’m not Anglo-Saxon, but interesting input and suggestion for another article :)

  6. wajahath ali July 5, 2012 at 2:33 am #

    great observation Sofia, contradictions of hygiene – you will find almost everyone only washing  right hand before eating a meal but yes if you decide to do something odd in a public place you will certainly be the center of attraction.. try eating with your left hand or talk loudly on your phone while eating or this is hilarious really….. last month I went to a bakery and ordered chicken burgers and coke for takeaway and one of my friends asked for a couple of tissues to be added to the takeaway and the the bakery man said “we don’t give tissues” so always keep your tissues with you ;) weirdos 

  7. Just One Boomer (Suzanne) July 8, 2012 at 6:50 am #

    I think the best way to deal with culture shock is to educate yourself about the culture you will be visiting ahead of time.  You might even decide you don’t want to go to a particular place (i.e. somewhere with medieval ideas about women and their place in society).  We lived in relatively rural England for a year when my father was an exchange teacher in 1969-1970.  Every day my mother said, “It’s a different culture.” Interestingly, several years ago, flying across the Atlantic, I read in an airline magazine that the common culture of Europe is American.  It’s true that they watch American TV shows and movies and listen to American music.  They might well think that they know more about you than they do. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “England and America are two countries divided by the same language.”

    • Sofia @ As We Travel July 12, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

      I agree Suzanne, the best way to deal with culture shock is to read up about it before so you know what to prepare for.

      Funny that the airline magazine of all magazines claimed that Europe has an American culture, as even the countries within Europe have different cultures from each other!

  8. Just One Boomer (Suzanne) July 8, 2012 at 6:57 am #

    One way to preempt some culture shock is to educate yourself about the cultures you expect to encounter on your travels. You might even decide to pass on trips to some places—i.e. perhaps somewhere with 8th century notions of how women should be regarded. Even on travels to English speaking countries, remember George Bernard Shaw’s admonition that: “England and America are two countries divided by the same language. We lived in rural England for a year when my father was an exchange teacher in 1969-1970. Just about every day something moved my mother to comment, “It’s a different culture.”

  9. LifePart2 July 9, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    Dropping all preconceptions and attachments to my opinions to how the world “should” be to me is key!

  10. Sabina July 13, 2012 at 1:32 am #

    It’s refreshing to read a post about culture shock, as this seems to be something that most travelers try to ignore or at least don’t address publicly. I think the smile and laugh behavior that you experienced in Thailand is also common in Cambodia. At least I hope it is, because there were times Cambodians laughed at me, and I hope they were doing it to be kind :)

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