Culture Shock!

Everyone who moves to a foreign country or environment will go through culture shock. There are 5 stages of culture shock, each of them with their typical characteristics. Some people go through all phases quite easily, while others have serious problems, or they do not progress at all and hence do not overcome culture shock.

It has such a huge impact on the emotional stability of a person, that psychologists have compared symptoms of culture shock to psychosis and severe depression!
The Oxford dictionary describes culture shock as “disorientation experienced when suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture or way”.

So why do people go through culture shock? It’s a normal reaction for humans encountering anything new and out of the ordinary. It triggers the same kind of psychological responses in us. But when we are moving to a different country and culture, it becomes far more intense.
Everything is different, the people look strange, you don’t understand the language, the religion, the customs, you don’t know how to get around, you can’t even find anything to eat at the supermarket!When a westerner moves to Saudi-Arabia the shock will be very severe, it will seem everything is done the opposite way or upside down than what you are used to..

So what are the different stages of culture shock?

Stage 1-the Honeymoon stage
This is when you first arrive and everything seems so wonderfully different, exotic even, and you want to experience and explore your surroundings. It’s the same feeling people have when they are on vacation. This phase usually lasts up to 2 months.

Stage 2- the Distress stage
You start feeling confused, and things don’t seem exciting and new anymore. You start to miss home and familiar things. The new culture starts to feel frustrating.

Stage 3- Withdrawal stage
In this stage you start feeling more hostile toward the new culture, the people and the environment. You see faults everywhere; you criticize and mock everything. People start comparing everything to their own “superior” culture, refusing to accept the differences they encounter. One might find the behavior of the locals “backward”, and unpredictable. At this stage you start to feel anxious and withdraw and isolate yourself.

Stage 4-Autonomy stage
You start coping better with the culture and problems you face, it has become more understandable and tolerable. You feel less isolated because you have started interacting more with locals.
This is the first step to acceptance.

Stage 5- Independence stage
You start to feel comfortable and confident in your surroundings. You embrace the culture and even start preferring some traits from it rather than your own. You might have adapted some of the local traditions, while still feeling yourself. It feels like this is your new home away from home.

I went through all these stages when I came to KSA. At first it was like being on a holiday, new and exciting then things started to appear weird and I didn’t accept the way they were. To me it seemed so illogical, HOW can they do those things, say this or be like that. It was just incomprehensible to me at that time. But slowly, alhamdulillah through my work and local friends I started to adapt to my surroundings. I started to notice how great some things are here compared to Finland. I started to learn about the religion and no longer had prejudices about Islam. I realized I had indeed been very ignorant!
What I dont quite understand is why some expats here in Saudi don’t seem to overcome the third stage of culture shock.ie they remain in the “withdrawal stage” for the whole time they live here. I wonder why is that? What prevents this progress, is it fear of the unknown, arrogance, sense of supremacy, or even lack of intelligence? I have met people who actually managed to live here 25 years and not learned to speak enough Arabic to order food at a restaurant. Or even worse, the only arabic they know is “mafi mushkila”(no problem). They dont know any Saudis, nor do they wish to interact with them. They call saudis animals, apes, rag-headded idiots and the likes..
These people are unfortunately mostly fellow westerners, living in their own isolated compounds. Maybe that has a negative impact on their lives which they are blind to. They try to continue their lives exactly like it was back home inside those walls. But in the end, they are only hurting themselves. I feel sorry for these people who continue to have no respect for the culture they live in, they have no interest in getting to know locals, yet they slander them with the cruelest most unfair words imaginable. That is called prejudice, which in Saudi-Arabia is sadly the norm amongst western folk. It’s so easy to live in a bubble inside the compound, and deny everything thats going on outside the walls! Most of these compounds go so far as to not letting saudi nationals in AT ALL! And this is their country! Ridiculously arrogant and racist if you ask me. They dont even allow western people to wear thobes or abayas inside some compounds, not even for halloween! Really! Some go so far as banning hijab (headscarves) from ALL women, even western muslims. Maybe they are trying to “get back” to saudis for having to wear abayas outside their compounds. Very childish, or is this incurable culture shock?

Imagine if it was the other way around, arabs would build their own compounds for example in the States. They would wall them and have high security. US citizens would be striclty prohibited. All other nationalities including Canadians are welcome. But NO americans. And no one can come in wearing anything other than “arab dress”. Only thobe and abayas allowed. Oh, but if you are U.S citizen, but happen to have dual citizenship with say, Lebanon, you are welcome in! If someone dares wear western dress they are kicked out of the compound. Sounds like utopia huh?Are westerners in KSA creating their own utopia inorder to avoid dealing with the outside one?

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  • AnonymousJune 16, 2010 - 9:07 pm

    Salam Layla :)
    I have found your blog very interesting. I’d like to ask some maybe silly questions if you don’t mind.
    1 – You are Finnish girl, so very tall comparing to short Saudis. Are you taller than your husband? I know they have complex of height.

    2 – I see some pictures here with blonde lady. Is it you? If so, you look excellent in abaya.

    3 – I read your husband is younger. How many years between both of you? How old are you? You know, usually we hear an opinion about Saudis that they look for young teenager virgin and so many times I see them with older European wives :) Good choice:)

    Sorry if I bothered you…I like to ask:) And I will ask you a lot reading your nice blog.

    Greetings from Poland

    NadiaReplyCancel

  • LaylahJune 23, 2010 - 12:34 am

    Hi Nadia! And welcome to my blog!
    Apologies for the late reply I have been very busy lately!
    Your questions aren’t silly they are interesting :)

    1. I’m average height for a Finnish woman and I know saudis tend to be short in general, however my husband is very tall for a saudi he is 186 cm, so much taller than me!

    2.I haven’t some of them shows me and some are my friends that work here. I’ve tried to put pictures that don’t display directly their faces. One picture shows my sister in Riyadh :)

    3. I’m over 30 and he is under 30, does that satisfy your curiosity? He’s very mature for his age but looks like his age actually, not younger like saudis usually do.

    You’re welcome to ask again :)ReplyCancel

  • BogardesqueAugust 14, 2010 - 1:45 am

    Just discovered your blog today. I think the last sentence sums it up perfectly. I’m a Third Culture Kid, never stayed in one place longer than five years and it’s the same every single place I’ve ever been to. I think most never really move beyond stage three. Someone doing a Sociology degree once told me that it serves as a bonding experience. I don’t know. What I have seen a lot though is that expats who stick together in one group, tend to behave “more” like the cliché of their home country than they would if they were at home.

    I try to stay away from them as much as possible but sometimes our paths cross and it’s there all over again. I think most people are too set in their ways and somehow can’t let go. They know on one level that things will be different but they don’t know exactly how.

    But my overall favorite is still the tourist who goes to another place on vacation and then sticks with his or her own countrymen. Sure it’s nice to meet up and if you’re staying for longer why not but seriously, two weeks in a luxury hotel and you’ve seen what?

    I actually just moved to Finland and the one thing I consistently hear is, “it’s so hard to make friends with the locals” and when you ask them, “well, have you tried” you get, “oh it’s so hard”. I’ve made some amazing friends here, the way I’ve made some amazing friends in other places I lived in. Culture shock is there but I think a lot of people find it more comfortable to stay in that zone than do anything about it. Plus, I really believe they feed off the other expats. Weird thing is, I usually have more in common with the locals than with the expats, and in some countries they’re just there for the free entertainment (and I’m not even talking about Asia here).

    Sorry for writing so much. It’s just one of my pet subjects. If you willingly come to another country, why on earth won’t you at least give it a try for a year? I think it’s a great idea that you wrote about it. Really looking forward to reading more.ReplyCancel

  • LaylahAugust 17, 2010 - 7:27 pm

    @ Bogardesque

    Thanks you for your lengthy comment and welcome to my blog!

    I really apreciate you took time to comment.
    I got very curious, where are you from originally and where in Finland are you now?

    I hear the exact same thing here. It’s so difficult (or impossible) to get to know locals.. Yet I’ve made many local friends here!It’s just depends on your attitude.

    Funny thing is, when I began overcoming the third stage of culture shock and started to make local friends and enjoy my life here, my so called Finnish “friends” all turned their backs on me..They especially disliked the fact I was dating a Saudi and began respecting local customs and religion more.
    These are exactly the type of people who hang out ONLY with other Finns in their tiny little circles. They still do mostly amd continue to hate or at least dislike the saudi people.

    Looking forward to reading more of your comments!ReplyCancel

  • AnonymousOctober 30, 2010 - 9:48 pm

    I’ve found your reply just right now:) Thank you so much. Of course I am satisfied :)
    I wish you happy life with your husband. Mine is younger than me 8 years that’s why I am always interested in my friend’s husband’s age :D

    NadiaReplyCancel

  • expats in saudi | Blue AbayaJanuary 23, 2014 - 4:22 am

    […] goes through culture shock in some way or form. For some it can be a breeze, others might really struggle for a long time […]ReplyCancel

  • PRADEEP.GFebruary 19, 2015 - 10:40 am

    HI…YOUR BLOGS REALLY HELPFUL FOR ME.NEXT MONTH I AM GOING TO AL-KOBHAR.BEFORE GOING THERE I GOT AN IDEA ABOUT THEIR CULTURE,LIFE ETC.,
    I LIKE YOUR BLOG CONTENT ABOUT WHAT ARE THING WE BRING TO SAUDI..ITS REALLY HELPFUL
    KEEP UPDATING ABOUT SAUDI….YOU ARE ROCKING…ReplyCancel

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