Unpacking “Culture Shock”: On ‘Culture’ and ‘Shock’

This morning I’ve been reading this fascinating book The World is my Classroom: International Learning and Canadian Higher Education, edited by Joanne Benham Rennick and Michel Desjardins.  The notion of ‘experiential travel’ (and anything else labelled as ‘experiential’ these days) actually comes out of academic literature on experiential education, sometimes called ‘experiential learning.’  My approach to this blog, and to this whole concept of ‘experiential travelling’ is coloured by my academic pursuits in the realm of experiential education.

the world
Available on Amazon: “The World Is My Classroom: International Learning and Canadian Higher Education” (2013). JB Rennick and M Desjardins (Eds.) Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

This Rennick and Desjardins book has been mind-shifting for a few reasons, but a main one I owe to Cathleen Difruscio and Joanne Benham Rennick who, in the fourth chapter of the book, dissect the concept of “culture shock.”  Their title – Culture Shock, Cognitive Dissonance, or Cognitive Negotiation? Terms Matter in International Service Learning Programs – really left me thinking through my own assumptions, especially when it comes to unpacking terminology regularly used in the land of experiential travel, especially when the ‘travel’ is done by a student for the purpose of an international experiential learning.

This chapter was especially thought-provoking to me because of my nerdy mix of international development scholar with an education background.  Terms matter.  In international development, we unpack terms all the time:  empowerment. human rights. dignity. development. economics. socialization. globalization. participation.  The international development practitioner and scholar knows that words can never be taken for granted.  For example, if an NGO says they are fighting for gender equality, the international development scholar asks, “What do you mean by ‘gender’? what do you mean by ‘equality’? and what do you mean by ‘fighting’?”

It struck me, then, in reading this chapter that we use words flippantly when preparing students for overseas experiences, or simply when I’m writing this blog, without truly thinking through what they mean.

Difruscio and Rennick unpack culture shock, a term used ad nauseum in the experiential travelling world, to critically assess its inherent meaning.  If you are shocked by one’s culture, what negative connotations does this have?  And if you are expecting this shock, how is that perpetuating the idea of difference between Us vs. Them (that is, the person travelling and the host community).  If you are anticipating some form of shock, the ideas of difference and negativity are embedded within your prose.

Other words we should probably be unpacking:

Experience: If we are stating that travel, or education, is experiential, it is because we assume that the participant/student will be have an experience.  What do we mean by that?  Difference? Something good? Does this force the student to create a reality different from their actual travel journey, for fear that it is not an adequate experience?  The term comes laden with assumptions.

Travels: I’ve discussed this in other posts, but we assume that travel implies movement outside the borders of our community, often our country.  How much damage are we doing to our own localities with this assumption?  Not only are we forgetting about our community, but we could be missing out on empowering and knowledge-building experiences (there’s 3 loaded words for ya!) by forgetting that travel doesn’t mean a four-hour plane ride.

Relationships: I talk a lot about building relationships in this blog.  How to connect with your host community.  How to build bonds.  But what equates a good relationship?  How do we know if a relationship has been built?  What if, in my cultural understanding of ‘relationship’, I have established friendships in this community, whilst their understanding of ‘relationship’ means I am still an outsider?  Personally, we all have our own values and beliefs regarding what constitutes friendship…but add culture to the mix and we may be seeing some form of a relationship that is not, in fact, reciprocal.

What other terms are used regularly in experiential travel and experiential learning that ought to be unpacked?  Add your ideas in the ‘comments’ section.  Though this is not an exhaustive list, it hopefully provokes thought on the common terms in this wonderful realm of experiential.


2 thoughts on “Unpacking “Culture Shock”: On ‘Culture’ and ‘Shock’

  1. Love your comments about Travels – today John and I decided to just relax all day and went for only 20 minute drive to Elora, that quaint little village with the cool shops, like the Neob Lavender Boutique. we sat outside a creperie, and while waiting an hour for our order to come, and not getting in a flap about the long wait, just enjoyed talking, watching people and even chatting with good friends of ours who just happened to park on the street in front of us, not knowing we were there. We do often forget the gems in our own communities and don’t have to travel miles and miles to have a great travel experience! Thanks Leah for putting this in perspective!


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