Have you ever felt like the people surrounding you just don’t understand you or your experiences?  Do everyday activities seem trivial?  Or do you feel as though you are trapped in a weird bubble…where you want to interact with the people around you, but there is something in the way?

Have you ever experienced these feelings after returning home from work?

If you have, you may be suffering from the symptoms of culture shock.  Culture shock is essentially the disorientation someone feels when they are experiencing an unfamiliar way of life.  More often then not this happens when people are immigrating or working in a new country, but can also refer to different social environments. 

Classic symptoms of culture shock include;

But you aren’t travelling back and forth between different cultures when you come and go from work…. or are you?

Is your work ‘persona’ vastly different than your home ‘persona’? 

For many people the answer is yes.  There are many things that you do at home that you wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do while at work, and vice versa.  For people who are immersed in high stress jobs (Doctors, Police Officers, CEO’s, Social Workers, etc.), coming home is like going to a completely different country.  Even more drastic are those people who live and work in different locations.

More and more often in order to make a living, people are working at places far from their homes, often times for weeks to months at a time.  No greater example of this lies just a few hundred kilometers north of where I live in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  The controversial Alberta oil sands employ hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world.  They work anywhere from 14-30+ days with as little as a few days to one week off at a time.  While working they are housed in camps that, while there have been attempts to make them homey, are not home.  They are essentially at work for 24 hours a day.  Granted they are up there for work, not for comfort, and are decently compensated for their time, but the difference in the cultures is palatable.  They line up for meals, share common spaces, in most cases they are banned from leaving the camp except to go to work, aren’t allowed to drink (not even one!), and the only privacy they can have is when they retire to their 8 x 10 room and even then they are subject to random searches.  Needless to say their work life is drastically different than their life at home.

Even though it is only a few hours away… the culture at camp is very different than that at home.  Growing up in Calgary I have always heard of the oil sands, the majority of people living in Calgary have some tie to the oil sands even if they aren’t travelling up there themselves.  I have had friends in the past who would come home and complain about ‘rig speak’…. they would interact with me in a different way then they normally would for the first few days when they got off shift.  Generally it involved a LOT more swearing and a huge amount of bravado. 

The main issue with dealing with culture shock, especially in this context, is that it is difficult for someone to identify that this is happening for them, let alone talk about it.  And talking about it is truly the only way to alleviate the stress that it causes.

It is not an easy thing for most people to talk about.  It is not something that friends and family really want to hear.  Essentially the person suffering from culture shock feels like they don’t belong with their own family.  Conversations and intimacy can feel uncomfortable for them, even though it is where they know they truly are the most comfortable.  Not exactly the sweet nothings you want to hear from your partner nor is it particularly enjoyable to feel.  Furthermore the symptoms of culture shock can make their partners feel as though they are ‘pulling away’ or just being a jerk.  They will react based on this assumption and the relationship can become strained.

Communication is important in any relationship, but even more so when you are dealing with external issues such as a drastic shift in work culture to home. It is difficult to transition constantly from one ‘life’ to the other ‘life’.  From one culture where they are guarded and worked very hard at keeping within their own private bubble, to the other where they are expected to be open, loving, and carefree.  With the transient nature of the work it is uncommon to work with the same people consistently enough to build up a trust, and you also have to abide by the unwritten ‘code’ of behavior…or the CULTURE of the work life.

When they return home they are immediately thrust into their everyday lives, where they are expected to be the loving and attentive husband, wife, girlfriend or mother, more often than not these are roles that they love, but it is often difficult to transition into them considering the restrictive environment that they ends up spending the majority of their time at.  The schedules are difficult; more time is spent away than at home.  When they are their work ‘persona’ more often than not… how are they expected to transition quickly?

Generally culture shock is something that the person becomes accustomed to.  They are not constantly moving in and out of the different cultures, and as such have an opportunity to reach the adjustment phase.  For those people who work away from home, and even those who have a drastically different work vs. home persona, the opportunity for adjustment does not exist.  By the time they have become accustomed to their home life, they are expected to go back to work.  With no time to adjust they are almost constantly thrown into a state of anxiety.  There is little wonder that relationships are strained and can fall apart.  Especially since culture shock is not something that people would generally associate with work vs. home life. 

Within the context of a relationship you can see how the symptoms of culture shock could be troubling, especially if the root cause of the symptoms is not easily identifiable.  Unfortunately there is no real way to prevent culture shock.  The only 100% effective thing would be to not transition between the two cultures.  Unfortunately this is not really a realistic solution.  People need to work, and they need to go home at some point.

As with most issues, the best way through is to talk it out.  Identify what is really causing the problems, and deal with it together and without judgment.  Admit that the issue, and its impacts, exists.  Many people see this as a sign of weakness, admitting that you feel uncomfortable, tense or confused is not easy, and it is a sign of courage and emotional maturity to be able to identify these feeling within yourself.

Again, there is no real way of stopping culture shock from happening, but a little knowledge and some effort can make the transition between the two worlds a little easier.

Copyright @ Jaime Booth Cundy 2012

About the Author

Jaime Booth Cundy BSW, MAPP

Jaime Cundy is a writer and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program.

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