Culture Shock and Wiggle Room

Going overseas can land you in culture shock.

Many Americans board a plane for an overseas destination without fully realizing that they are flying into a completely different culture. Some experience culture shock: a psychological disorientation caused by immersion in a place where people do things and see things differently.

Most cultural groups develop separately, with their own logical (as far as theyre concerned) answers to lifes basic needs. While every culture is ethnocentric, thinking, ‘We do it right’; its important for travelers to understand that most solutions to lifes problems are neither right nor wrong. They are different. Thats what distinguishes cultures, and for a traveler, that makes life interesting.

Americans, like all groups, have their own peculiar traits and ways of doing things. Its fun to look at our culture from a wider perspective, and see how others question our sanity. For instance, we consider ourselves very clean, but when we take baths, we use the same water for soaking, cleaning, and rinsing. (We wouldnt wash our dishes that way). The Japanese, who use clean water for every step of the bathing process, might find our ways strange or even disgusting. People in some cultures blow their nose right onto the street. They couldnt imagine doing that into a small cloth, called a hanky, and storing it in their pocket to be used again and again.

Once when I was having lunch at a cafeteria in Afghanistan, an older man joined me to make a point. He said, I am a professor here in Afghanistan. In this world, one-third of the people use a spoon and fork like you, one-third use chopsticks, and one-third uses fingers like me, and we are all civilized the same.

Toilet paper (like a spoon or a fork) is another Western essential that most people on our planet do not use. What they use varies. I wont get too graphic here, but remember that millions of civilized people on this planet never eat with their left hand. (Some countries such as Turkey have very frail plumbing, and toilet paper jams up the WCs. If wastebaskets are full of dirty paper, leave yours there, too.)

Too often we judge the world in terms of civilized and primitive. I was raised thinking that the world was a pyramid with the US on top, and everyone else was trying to get there. I was comparing people on their ability (or interest) in keeping up with us in material consumption, science, and technology.

My egocentrism took a big hit when my parents took me to Europe. I was a pimply teenager in an Oslo park filled with parents doting over their adorable children. I realized those moms and dads loved their kids as much as my parents loved me. It hit me that this world is home to billions of equally precious children. From that day on, I was blessed…and cursed…with a broader perspective.

Over the years, Ive found that if we measure cultures differently (maybe according to stress, loneliness, heart attack rates, hours spent in traffic jams, or family togetherness), the results stack up differently. Its best not to fall into the rating game. All societies are complex and highly developed in their own way.

Just as we have a stereotypical view of most of the world, most of the world sees us as a version of Uncle Sam. To the average Abdullah on the street whos seen plenty of American movies, TV shows, and tourists, and has read countless news stories about those crazy Yankees we are outgoing, hardworking, informal, rushed, overconfident, and unconcerned with class distinctions and authority.

Some of these traits are positive and others aren’t. Remember, there are no absolute good and bad when it comes to comparing lifestyles. For instance, while we may proudly ignore class ranks and think of our friendliness as a virtue, someone from India might be shocked at our class ignorance. The same way a Frenchman might see our good-old-boy slap-on-the-back warmth, as downright rude.

If a prescription could be written to cure culture shock, it would include instructions to: Learn as much as you can about your host culture. Assume strange habits in this strange land are logical. Think of these habits as clever solutions to lifes problems. Be militantly positive. Avoid the temptation to commiserate with negative Americans. Don’t joke disapprovingly about a culture youre trying to understand. Make a local friend, someone you can confide in and learn from.

Most importantly, remember that different people find different truths to be God-given and self-evident. Things work best if we give everybody a little wiggle room. And that goes for more than just travelers.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.