Scientific evidence is piling up that we’re indeed social animals. No matter what your personality type, your brain will light up when you feel like you don’t fit in, or when you’re being excluded. In international settings, this social pain is often called “culture shock”. Those feelings of exclusion and different-ness activate the same neurons that fire when you break your foot and experience physical pain.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN WHEN YOU’RE IN A NEW COUNTRY?
You look different, you talk differently, you probably dress differently, too. When a local looks at you, and wonders whether you can be trusted or not, their brain function will change accordingly. The same is true for you. If you like and want to collaborate with someone, your brain will release oxytocin, aka “the love hormone”. If you don’t like someone and see them as a competitor, you’re less likely to empathize with them.(1)
For international teams, that means work may get sabotaged, because crucial information might not be shared. At any rate, your (and their) brain will be flooded with stress hormones like cortisol, which limits your ability for creative problem-solving and optimistic future-planning.
LOVE IS THE ANSWER
(…) being pushed out of social relationships and into isolation has health ramifications. In fact, there was a book done by health advocate Dr. Dean Ornish, called Love and Survival. There has been study after study done on the positive impact of loving relationships. What he had said at the time in that book was that if we had a drug that did for our health what love does, it would far outsell anything that has ever been made. The efficacy is that potent. But we downplay the importance of love and connection in a culture based on the success of “the rugged individual.” People in our culture need to understand that healthy connection can reduce pain on all levels. (2)
No, you don’t have to start romantic relationships with all the locals. But you should try and find things you have in common with your new colleagues and neighbors.
You should try and understand their culture and learn that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Teach them about your culture without trying to impose it.
Your brain can learn; the more you expose it to the new culture, the more it will get used to it by rewiring existing connections and creating brain-maps (representations of the new terrain) for easy access.
You can teach your brain to recognize strange-looking faces, street signs, or produce labels as something you can handle.
KNOW SOMEONE WHO COULD USE SOME HELP?
If you’re finding yourself a little more depressed than usual, you might be experiencing culture shock.
If the partner you relocated with isn’t sleeping well and has a shorter fuse than usual, they might be experiencing culture shock.
If your team isn’t working effectively together, they might be experiencing uncertainty of how to deal with the different cultures within in the team.
The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth. Given the fact that our brains treat social and physical pain similarly, should we as a society treat social pain differently than we do? We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it.” And yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common response. (3)
You can snap out of social pain or culture shock about as easily as you can mend your broken foot by willing it stop hurting. Healing takes time, and support can help. Share your stories here, find an expat support group, read a book about moving, or work with a coach. Most of all, know you can change the situation by raising your awareness about what is happening, and by learning more about the culture you’re in.
 Rock, David, SCARF – a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others
 Lieberman, Matthew D, Social – Why our Brains are Wired to Connect
I am extremely grateful for this piece. As someone that has traveled and experienced culture shock, I can agree that love and friendship really do hold all of the healing power. I enjoyed how you compared culture shock to a physical ailment to bring to light the seriousness with which it must be, and often isn’t, taken.
Hey Katie Jane, thanks so much for commenting! That’s what we’re here for – it’s all about community. 🙂
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