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?
Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010. Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 75 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia! Follow my adventures in Saudi and beyond on instagram: instagram.com/blueabaya