Overcoming Culture Shock

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- Before I moved to Italy, I'd only heard of culture shock. I told myself I was too tough to be emotionally impacted by something as insignificant as a slightly-different culture. But as I sat there in my beat-up loaner car, out of gas, lost in a bad part of town, with thousands of euro in my pocket to pay my landlord, surrounded by suspicious-looking people that don't understand my language, I suddenly realized that I was not immune to culture shock. I felt isolated, frustrated, and afraid. I felt like crying, screaming, or both.

Culture shock is more than just discomfort over not being able to speak the local language. In the grandest sense, it is simply the adjustment required by anyone encountering the unfamiliar surroundings of a new place. This includes language, verbal and non-verbal, social customs, hours of business, driving habits, access to services, climate and more. Basically, if you're feeling out-of-place because of your surroundings in here, you're experiencing culture shock.

There are four phases of experiencing and overcoming culture shock: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and mastery.

The first is the honeymoon phase. When I arrived in Italy, everything was exciting and new. Every difference was an adventure. These markets are so interesting! Look at all of these roundabouts! These buildings are so old! How fascinating that everything closes down from 12 to 2 for an afternoon nap called "riposo"?

But as all honeymoons do, the newness wears off and things that were a novelty may simply become problems. This is called the negotiation phase. You negotiate with feelings of being uncomfortable or even angry as you try to come to terms with your new surroundings. I remember being so frustrated at not being able to find a simple exhaust hose for my broken dishwasher. "If I were in the States, I could just go down to Home Depot and get what I need," I told my wife as we slogged through hand-washing dishes for our family of 8 in a tiny sink with an even tinier overhead drying rack.

The third phase is the adjustment phase. This is when you begin to adapt to your surroundings. You have picked up a few essential phrases in the native language and have learned where to get the things you need and when the stores will be open. The faster you move from negotiation and into adjustment the better. I remember my first few terrifying business transactions such as when I took my car to a body shop run by an Italian man who spoke zero English. I scripted a fictional conversation between him and I, translated into both languages. I awkwardly read him my questions and it wasn't long before he veered off script and I found myself struggling to communicate, but we got through it. I got my car fixed and I think he may even have given me a little bit of a discount for my efforts to speak Italian.

Finally you'll come to the mastery phase. This is when you know your way around, you know where and how to get the things you need, and you may even have developed some basic skills with the local language. When you first arrive this development seems like it will never happen, but with time and effort it does! The key is to recognize that the frustration you feel is normal and all you have to do is persist in doing the things that feel difficult until you become more comfortable with them.

Mastery is the golden time of your assignment in Europe. You feel comfortable exploring new places. You may have made some friends in your new home. You have probably even adopted some customs and traditions that you will carry with you for the rest of your life.

Things don't always go perfectly. Sometimes you may think you're OK and find yourself experiencing culture shock when you thought it was over. Even now I find myself chafing at my ever-present tailgater, inexplicably-closed gas stations, or a surprise labor strike.
Sometimes when people experience culture shock they are tempted to withdraw or reject the new culture. These people never progress beyond the negotiation phase and miss the liberating joy of mastery. They may only shop at the commissary, avoid contact with locals, and take all of their leave to go back to the states. What a tragedy! Don't let this be you.

It only takes a little bit of effort to reach mastery. Study the language. Reach out to your neighbors. Endeavor to learn and explore the exciting world around you. Your hard work will pay off and you will be rewarded with enriching experiences, lasting friendships, and useful skills that will serve you well throughout your life.

Luckily, my culture shock gas crisis was short-lived. I didn't get mugged, found an open gas station, managed to work the crazy self-serve gas pump, and was able to pay my rent on time. Now a year later I speak comfortably with natives, serve in a volunteer position in a local church congregation, and share meals with my foreign neighbors. When our tour here is over, my family will fondly remember our time in Italy and long to return someday--next time without the culture shock. And until then we are adjusted to our current environment and prepared to conquer the challenges of an overseas assignment and enjoy the adventure ahead of us.

(Editor's note: The 704th Munitions Support Squadron is a geographically seperated unit in Italy but assigned to Spangdahlem AB.)