Language and Culture Shocks

Most people are probably familiar with the term “culture shock.” It’s that feeling of uncertainty or anxiety when moving or travelling to another country. When a lot of little things happen in a short amount of time that remind you that you aren’t in Kansas anymore — culture shock. This isn’t actually confined to travelling abroad, though. I experienced this sensation when moving from Kentucky to Pennsylvania and again from Kentucky to Utah. The very distinct feelings of unfamiliarity, thoughts of “Can I really live here?”, and even adjustment to hearing accents different than my own took me through all four stages of culture shock.

Of course I expected to have culture shock in our first weeks living in Italy, but I naively thought this shock was a superficial phenomenon. I believed that as soon as I adjusted to the differences in dining habits, awkwardness of not understanding conversations around me, and absence of a Target store, I’d be well-adapted and able to live my best life. I was completely unprepared for the instances of culture shock that would arise again and again as I uncovered the language and encountered it in various situations. I hadn’t considered the myriad ways in which the language and culture intertwine. For me, this language culture shock goes beyond the anxiety of not understanding, the fear of making mistakes, and the frustration of encountering false friends. Rather, it’s the impact of experiencing situations in which language is literally used differently than we are accustomed.

I’ll never forget, for example, the first time an Italian told me to “tranquilla.” I hadn’t met this word in the Italian language yet, but my brain delivered a high school Spanish version of “calm” to the forefront of my conscious, and I became immediately offended. “Is this woman really telling me to calm down? Do I look worked up? Am I overreacting? I’m pretty sure I’m calm, so why the hell is she telling me to calm down?!” Luckily, I didn’t have enough vocabulary to verbally react and was instead able to politely move forward. It took me hearing this command – tranquilla – several times in a variety of settings to understand its meaning not as a directive but rather as a genial “Don’t worry about it. / No worries.”

This is one of many examples of culture meeting language. It’s not enough to simply translate words or phrases directly, as any language learner knows. Forming a deeper cultural understanding of how words or phrases are used and interpreted in everyday conversation is a powerful, yet often difficult, skill to master. And in my case, not having this skill resulted in copious amounts of mini-culture shocks over several years. Culture shock wasn’t a one-time, grand-scale occasion of adapting to new surroundings and ways of life. Rather, it has been a plethora of individual instances of confusion and frustration, each one requiring its own period of understanding, adjusting, and accepting.

My daughter has attended Italian schools for over three and a half years, since age 4. One day about halfway through her third scholastic year, she was on the verge of tears as we walked home from school. I’d never before seen her like this as she lamented that this was “the worst day of school ever.” When probed for details she recounted that the teacher had, in frustration, called the children “stupid.” So first, I should note that there are two words I don’t allow my children to say — hate and stupid. To me, these are two words that are 1) innately intended to cause harm to others and 2) overused inU.S. American culture and are, therefore, used haphazardly. Instead, I encourage my kids to find other words to more accurately express their feelings or opinions of things. Additionally, from her experiences as an English speaker, my daughter understands that “stupid” is not a word adults use (hopefully, anyway) to directly describe children. So when my daughter’s teacher used the word “stupidi” to describe the kids who were full of energy and not paying attention, my English-speaking daughter internalized this as “stupid.” It’s true that the Italian adjective “stupido” (in all of its gender/number forms) can translate to mean stupid, but it’s also commonly used to indicate something (or someone) being silly. It took a lot of explaining from both me and my Italian friend to convince my daughter that the teacher did not call the children stupid, but instead was describing their silliness.

Interestingly enough, my husband, who chose not to learn the language (and whose work doesn’t require it) has not experienced these mini-culture shocks. He had a one-time, grand-scale shock to new surroundings and ways of life, and that was that. He comfortably moves about our town engaging in day-to-day experiences of driving through round-abouts, drinking small coffees, and having to specifically ask for one’s pizza to be cut into slices — all things that took some getting used to in the beginning — but without understanding and engaging in the verbal world around him, he is protected from the recurrent shock of misunderstanding a native speaker’s intent when we try to literally translate the words they use.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

To be clear, I am not judging or admonishing my husband for not learning the language. He works hard in a stressful job where everyone speaks his native language, and he isn’t intrinsically motivated to spend time outside of long working hours to learn another language. I respect this fully. I only bring up his experience to display a reasonable comparison between the original culture shock that most people experience when living or travelling abroad and the deeper culture shocks that repeatedly arise over time as one navigates the intricacies of language usage within a culture.

While continually dealing with unexpected language culture shocks can take an emotional toll on a person, I think it can also speed up the process of accepting other cultural differences. For example, I quickly adapted to the fact that Italians don’t really do lines. If you want to buy something at the outdoor market, don’t wait for the vendor to give you a turn. You must actively claim your spot and go for it or every nonna behind you will take theirs first. Yet nearly every time my husband goes to the supermarket, he comes home with a dramatic story of how someone cut someone else in line. It’s okay. It’s just the way things are here. I adapted faster to driving norms in Italy than my husband, who claims that he’s still not used to it after almost four years. When we tell friends that our dinner party starts at 6, no one shows up until at least 6:30, and then everyone socializes for an hour before even thinking about touching the food — I’m okay with that. I love it. The value placed on quality time with friends is beautiful. My husband’s desire is to push past the apertivo and make everyone sit and eat as soon as the food is ready. Again, I’m not judging him for his solidly-internalized U.S. culture norms.* Everyone experiences other cultures in their own way. However, my theory is that because I’ve continually encountered culture shocks through my interactions with the language, I have more quickly adjusted to and accepted the original shocks. Because I’m so often faced with language usage culture differences, I think I may have been faster to accept the non-language-related differences in order to create space for emotionally managing the disparities in how language is used.

As I said, arriving in Italy I expected to experience that surface-level culture shock. I was ready for it and, in many ways, excited for it. Yet I wasn’t at all prepared for the recurrent language-related culture shocks that would transpire even after several years in the country. I certainly wasn’t prepared to walk my daughter through these experiences, either, both tending to and validating her emotional responses and also working through cultural language differences on a pragmatic level. Being aware of this phenomenon has helped me move through the last three stages of culture shock faster with every instance of language turmoil. I hope, too, that this analysis of our experiences in Italy will help us adapt easier when we move to Germany later this year. Knowing that, in choosing to learn the language of the country, we will have many deeper, more emotional encounters with culture shock is the first step in accepting and adapting to differences and misunderstandings. After all, knowing is half the battle.

*I should note that my husband has absolutely loved living in Italy, and even though he struggles to fully adjust to these day-to-day cultural differences, he has a deep appreciation for cultures outside the U.S.

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