Culture Shock and COVID-19

I vividly remember my first cross-cultural experience, arriving in Kathmandu for my medical student elective. For the first couple of weeks, I could not believe what a beautiful country I was visiting and how friendly the Nepali people were. Then I suffered my first, of many, bouts of diarrhoea and very quickly everything was terrible. I was suffering culture shock, “a sense of confusion and uncertainty, sometimes with feelings of anxiety, that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.”[1]

For the first couple of weeks, I could not believe what a beautiful country I was visiting …Then, very quickly everything was terrible. But in a coronavirus pandemic, we are all in culture shock.

Until a few weeks ago, culture shock was the preserve of the missionary or the adventurous traveller. But in a coronavirus pandemic, we are all in culture shock, as a number of us in the mission world have pointed out.[2]

Introducing Culture Shock

So how does an understanding of culture shock help us to navigate COVID-19? The language of culture shock entered the mission community through Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg. His classic article on the subject begins:

Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to give orders to servants, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not.[3]

Each part of his description rings true to our recent experience, except our need to give orders to servants. The world that we knew so well is suddenly operating differently. I feel anxious if someone stands too close to me at the supermarket. I am confused about how to greet my neighbour. I am not sure what rules apply if I go out for a walk. Simple tasks that were entirely normal for me in February became confusing and complicated by the end of March. We are experiencing culture stress because the culture we live in has rapidly changed. We are learning to communicate differently, using video conferencing rather than meeting face to face. The rules by which society is operating have become very fluid, and early in the pandemic were changing daily. Many of the support structures that enable us to live resilient lives have changed. We are experiencing stress from rapid cultural change.

Culture Stress and Emotional Fallout

When we prepare long-term missionaries to serve in a new context, we teach them about the emotions of culture stress. It is important to understand that culture stress is not a different emotional experience to other forms of stress. Rather, the emotions of culture stress are familiar emotions that are felt in the light of new stressors. For example, I do not usually cry when I order a coffee; but I may well cry when I try to order a coffee in a new culture because my fumbling language makes me feel so incompetent. The early stages of cultural adjustment involve many changes, which bring both gains and losses. Losses need to be grieved and the emotions of loss must be felt and acknowledged. Experiencing these emotions is tiring; anyone who has suffered a significant bereavement knows how exhausting the experience is. We tell new missionaries that they will feel tired all the time and will need more sleep. It is no surprise that in the culture stress of coronavirus, many people are feeling tired. We talk about screen fatigue and of feeling “zoomed out”, but an aspect of this tiredness comes from culture stress. It is inevitable that we will be less productive and more emotionally labile.

We talk about screen fatigue and of feeling “zoomed out”, but an aspect of this tiredness comes from culture stress. It is inevitable that we will be less productive and more emotionally labile.

Culture stress does not only bring emotions associated with grief and loss. We will be more likely to feel angry, anxious, frustrated, tense, fearful and sad. We will experience greater tension and conflict in our interpersonal relationships at home and in lockdown. Daily tasks that we normally complete without any thought are now sources of stress. All these are aspects of culture shock.

Stages of Culture Shock

As we face coronavirus-induced culture shock, we should remind ourselves of the stages of cultural adjustment. The stage model of cultural adjustment has been explored by a range of authors.[4]

The most commonly used models describe a U curve, where the low point of the U reflects the greatest level of emotional distress. This low point typically occurs around 9 months after first arriving in a new culture. The five stages move from an initial euphoric or ‘honeymoon’ stage into a second stage of disintegration. This is followed by two stages of reintegration before finally leading to a settled, reciprocal interdependence.[5]

In reality no long-term missionary has experienced a neat U curve of cultural adjustment. Most describe a roller-coaster of emotions that track up and down, but nevertheless follow the overall shape of a U curve.

We have seen the initial stages of cultural adjustment worked out all around us in ourselves, our friends and colleagues. In the early days of lockdown when we started working from home, many of us went through an initial honeymoon stage. We loved the fact that our commute to work took a few seconds, that we could wear pyjamas all day, at least from the waist down. The first week was fun. But we are well past the honeymoon stage now. We are heading down the U curve. Unfortunately, the lessons from cross-cultural mission are that things will likely get worse before they get better. If lockdown lasts for an extended period of time, we should expect to see greater negative mental health outcomes at the six to nine months mark.

One of the challenges of COVID-19, which adds a level of complexity to this story, is that the culture we are living in is highly fluid. We want to know when things will return to normal, but the new normal will not be the old normal. We may not reach the new normal for a very considerable length of time. We should therefore expect that cultural adjustment to a coronavirus world will be an extended and long-term process.

The first week was fun. But we are well past the honeymoon stage now. We are heading down the U curve.

Lessons from Mission for COVID-19 Culture Shock

What lessons can the missionary community offer to our churches in culture shock? Let me suggest three:

  1. Know your own stress responses. It helps a great deal if we know our own stress responses, especially if we are able to identify our early signs of stress. Each person has a different pattern of stress. My early symptoms of stress are headaches, induced by jaw-clenching. My wife’s early symptoms of stress are waking in the middle of the night. We are all different and have different patterns. Some are more prone to internal stress—stress that I induce within myself through my own thought patterns. I need to understand my own pattern of stress if I am to build my resilience in the face of stress. Stress management is easier and more effective if we intervene earlier rather than later. This requires self-knowledge, which is an important reflective skill for long-term missionaries.
  2. Plan your own stress management. Simply identifying my pattern of stress does not help unless I know how to reduce and relieve it. The missionary world has well developed models of pastoral care that enable long-term workers to manage their own resilience and well-being.[6] Just as each of us has our own pattern of stress, so each of us will differ in our preferred stress mitigation strategies. Exercise is an important stressbuster for me; my wife spends time with close friends. Many missionaries have a pastoral care plan that enables them to take responsibility for their well-being. It helps a great deal to write out your own pattern of stress and then to plan your own pastoral care. Resources that help us with stress management are plentiful—the challenge is to know how to put them into practice on a regular basis.[7] 
  3. Trust your Heavenly Father’s love and care. Show me a missionary in their first three months in a new culture, and I’ll show you someone who is praying. New missionaries are forced to trust God for things that they have never had to pray about before. The coronavirus situation is, of course, different. We have not boarded a plane and travelled to a new country with its own language. We have not travelled anywhere, but our culture has changed rapidly around us. In the face of the culture stress we are experiencing, we need to turn to our Heavenly Father and learn, afresh, to pray. Like the new missionary, we are experiencing our own loss of control. However, we trust a God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. None of this is a surprise to Him. Our churches have an opportunity to learn to trust our Father’s care in new ways and with greater vibrancy and confidence.   

Like the new missionary, we are experiencing our own loss of control. However, we trust a God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. None of this is a surprise to Him.

Conclusion

One of the privileges of experiencing culture shock is that it enables a person to analyse and reflect more deeply on their “home” culture—the culture they have come from. Coronavirus offers a gift to our churches if we use it to reflect on the culture and worldview that we have come from. Many things that seemed so certain two months ago lie in tatters. We have been living within the immanent frame of secularism, excluding God from our daily lives, much more than we would like to think.[8]  Coronavirus has shattered the illusion that we are in control of our world. As we adjust to new realities, we do so in confidence that our Heavenly Father loves us and is the sovereign ruler of our universe. Our churches have a great opportunity to speak with this missional confidence to a hurting world.


[1] “Culture Shock,” 2020, accessed 20th April 2020, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture%20shock.

[2] See for example Simon Gillham and Margie Gillham, “Culture Shock: Why everyone’s feeling it and how to cope,” interview by Lionel Windsor, Forget the Channel, 2020.

[3] Kalervo Oberg, “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments,” Practical Anthropology 7, no. 4 (1960): 177, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/009182966000700405.

[4] See for example: Kalervo Oberg, Culture Shock and the problem of adjustment to new cultural environments (Washington, DC: Department of State Foreign Service Institute, 1958); Sverre Lysgaard, “Adjustment in a foreign society: Norweigian Fulbright grantees visiting the United States,” International Social Science Bulletin 7 (1955); Peter S. Adler, “The Transitional Experience: An alternative view of culture shock,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 15, no. 4 (1975); Paul Pedersen, The Five Stages of Culture ShockL Critical Incidents around the World (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995); Colleen Ward, Stephen Bochner, and Adrian Furnham, The Psychology of Culture Shock (New York: Routledge, 2001).

[5] Pedersen, The Five Stages of Culture ShockL Critical Incidents around the World, 3.

[6] Kelly O’Donnell, Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from Around the World, Globalization of Mission Series, (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013); David Williams, “Pastoral Care of Missionaries: Turning Theory into Practice,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 46, no. 4 (October 2010).

[7] See for example: Henry Thompson, The Stress Effect: Why Smart Leaders Make Dumb Decision and what to do about it (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010); Jim Berg, “Basics for Pressured Believers: Looking at Pressure Biblically,” The Journal of Biblical Counselling 19, no. 3 (2001).

[8] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).

 


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