Sep 12, 2012

Culture Shock in Florence

First of all I hope that none of my students will ever experience a “culture shock” while they are spending their institutional semester abroad in Italy. I tend to associate the term ‘shock’ to a traumatic event that causes a sudden and violent disturbance in the emotions. 
If my use of the term makes any sense, I do not think that American students necessarily experience a “culture shock” (Kalvero Oberg 1960) [1] while they are studying in Florence. Or, to put it in other, more sociological terms, I do not see this group of people exposed to such a threat — no more than any other group of youngsters that comes to my mind. As a sociologist, I would never start studying the topic “American Students Abroad” from such perspective. That’s why I am always surprised when a student uses the expression “culture shock” — a bit as a mantra, I shall confess — in class. It seems as if they were prepared and socialized to this theory, and they are applying it as "the" interpretative paradigm for their acculturation process abroad. Therefore, I believe culture "shock" is an inopportune terminological choice; I would consider “culture malaise”, or “culture fatigue”, or  “culture frustration”,  or  “culture anxiety”, or  “culture stress”, proper expressions. Shortly, I consider the locution cultural shock, referred to the average American youngster who is studying in Florence, a hyperbole. How would you describe a true traumatic event, Cultural Super-Shock! I believe there is a profound difference between frustrating and traumatic events.
Within the psychological literature “acculturative stress” has become the preferred expression for other reasons, because “it is closely linked to psychological models of stress as a response to environmental stressors” (Berry & Sam, 1997, 298).  Anyhow, we are talking about stressors, not shockers!
Acculturative stress is defined as a negative psychological reaction to the experiences of acculturation, often characterized by anxiety, depression and a variety of psychosomatic problems. Berry prefers to use the expression “acculturative stress” for two more reasons.

First, the notion of shock carries only negative connotations, whereas stress can vary from positive (eustress) to negative (dis-stress) in valence. Because acculturation has both positive (e.g., new opportunities) and negative (e.g., discrimination) aspects, the stress conceptualization better matches the range of affect experienced during acculturation. Moreover, shock has no cultural or psychological theory or research context associated with it, whereas stress has a place in a well-developed theoretical matrix (i.e., stress-coping-adaptation). Second, the phenomena of interest have their life in the intersection of two cultures; they are intercultural, rather than cultural, in their origin. The term “culture” implies that only one culture is involved, whereas the term “acculturation” draws our attention to the fact that two cultures are interacting with, and producing, the phenomena. Hence, for both reasons, the author prefers the notion of acculturative stress to that of culture shock (Berry, 'Acculturation', in Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology, 2004).

I do have some problems also applying to the American students in Florence Peter Adler’s  five-stage process (1975). The initial contact, or the honeymoon stage, is when the newly arrived individual experiences the curiosity and excitement of a tourist without any corresponding sense of responsibility for his or her own behavior. The second stage involves disintegration of familiar cues and overwhelms the individual with the requirements of the new culture. The individual typically experiences self-blame and a sense of personal inadequacy for difficulties encountered. The third stage reintegrates new cues with an increased ability to function in the new culture. However, the emotions associated with this third stage are typically anger, blame, and resentment toward the new culture for having caused difficulties unnecessarily. The fourth stage continues the process of reintegration toward gradual autonomy and increased ability to see both bad and good elements of the old and new cultures. The fifth stage is when the individual has achieved a bicultural identity and is able to function in both the old and the new cultures.
What's my problem with such a sequence? I simply never met a student that went through anything like that; if you are one of them — or you know one — please reply to this post.
Moreover, this sequence is considered by some scholars controversial and simplistic. According to Furnham and Bochner (1986) the U-curve theory first does not consider several important variables in the adjustment process — such as depression, loneliness, homesickness. Second, each subject might experience cultural stress in different moments of the adjustment process. That is, you might be "shocked"  as soon as you get off the plane, and experience the honeymoon stage at the end of your sojourn — may be because you truly fall in love with an Italian boy or girl!
The U-curve model does not even address differences in time, location, and intensity of the sojourn —predicting the same curve for people who experience little or significant culture gaps. The U-curve and  its variations —W-curves; but I can easily imagine other kinds of curves appearing in the next future (M, Z, K, and X-curves) —  are largely anecdotal and fail to describe other types of sojourners: who fails to adjust; who returns home early.
Finally, why cultural problems, or however you want to name them, are thought in a negative way? Why critical cultural encounters have to be weathered in advance? Why not seeing them as positive experiences within the overall identity development of the youngster abroad? 

-        Berry, J. W.; Kim, U.; Minde, T.; Mok, D. (1987) Comparative studies of acculturative stress. “International Migration Review”, 21, 491-511. 
-        Berry, J. W.; Kim, U.; Power, S.; Young, M.; Bujaki, M. (1989) Acculturation attitudes in plural societies. “Applied Psychology”, 38, 185-206. 
-        Berry, J.W., & Sam, D. (1997) Acculturation and adaptation. In J.W. Berry, M.H. Segall, & C. Kagitcibasi (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology: Vol 3 (pp. 291–326). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
-        Furnham, A., & Bochner, S. (1986) Culture shock: Psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments. London: Methuen.
-        Oberg, K. (1960) Cultural shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments. “Practical Anthropology”, 7, 177–182.

Shock (New Oxford American Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2010). 
N.  1. a sudden upsetting or surprising event or experience: it was a shock to face such hostile attitudes when I arrived. ■ a feeling of disturbed surprise resulting from such an event: her death gave us all a terrible shock | her eyes opened wide in shock. ■ an acute medical condition associated with a fall in blood pressure, caused by such events as loss of blood, severe burns, bacterial infection, allergic reaction, or sudden emotional stress, and marked by cold, pallid skin, irregular breathing, rapid pulse, and dilated pupils: he died of shock due to massive abdominal hemorrhage. ■ a disturbance causing instability in an economy: trading imbalances caused by the two oil shocks. ■short for electric shock2. a violent shaking movement caused by an impact, explosion, or tremor: earthquake shocks | rackets today don't bend or absorb shock the way wooden rackets do. ■short for shockabsorber.
V. 1. [with obj.] cause (someone) to feel surprised and upset: she was shocked at the state of his injuries. ■ offend the moral feelings of; outrage: the revelations shocked the nation. ■[no obj.] experience such feelings: he shocked so easily. ■(usu. be shocked) affect with physiological shock, or with an electric shock. 2. [no obj.] (archaic) collide violently: carriage after carriage shocked fiercely against the engine.
ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from French choc (noun), choquer (verb), of unknown origin. The original senses were ‘throw (troops) into confusion by charging at them’ and ‘an encounter between charging forces,’ giving rise to the notion of ‘sudden violent blow or impact.’



[1] Kalvero Oberg coined the term culture shock to describe the anxiety resulting from losing one’s sense of when to do what and how in a new culture. A visitor to a foreign culture experiencing culture shock discovers that familiar cues have been replaced by strange or unfamiliar cues. Oberg mentioned six aspects of culture shock: (1) strain, resulting from the effort of psychological adaptation; (2) a sense of loss and deprivation, referring to former friends, status, profession, and possessions; (3) rejection by or of the culture; (4) confusion, referring to role, role expectations, feelings, and self-identity; (5) surprise, anxiety, disgust, or indignation regarding the cultural differences between old and new ways; and (6) feelings of impotence, as a result of the inability to cope in the new environment.