An Apology for Culture Shock

by Jim Kennedy

Culture is the accumulated and habitual patterns of behavior of a people reflected in their day-to-day actions. The history of a people and their ongoing traditions profoundly mold the current culture. This yields some wholesome and progressive social modalities as well as some that can inhibit societal evolution towards healthier collective dynamics. No group, tribe, family or nation is free of this fact of life. In actuality, the people themselves are the culture, the very face and forefront of this human petri dish called culture.

None of us are immune to the effects of our native culture. Because we have the capacity to exercise free will, we have the opportunity to change our personal and collective mores in what we feel is a more positive direction. Ideally, on a personal level, we can choose our response to any given environment. But in reality our native culture exercises a high degree of influence on our thinking. The fixed and morally binding notions and customs of our society can profoundly color our personal reaction habits. We may deeply embrace these shared values and believe whole-heartedly they are worthy of being upheld. At times it is a struggle to find our own voice, our own heart, and a challenge to form our own credo, our own set of values.

Cultural immersion travel offers a unique cognitive opportunity. A chance to be exposed to another culture is a chance to expand our tolerance and understanding of all cultures, including our own. Culture shock is a very real thing, but it is necessarily an individual thing, for we all will have our own response to foreign experiences. Cultural immersion travel allows us to form an intention to challenge our personal comfort levels a bit and authentically attempt to broaden and deepen our sensibilities regarding human ways different than our own. To experience another culture without the background litany of our acquired prejudices allows one to more fully appreciate humanity’s diverse paths and, in truth, to more fully enjoy life in general, but most especially to enjoy a journey into another world.

Symptoms of culture shock come in many forms, from a simple lack of amenities angst, to a privacy issue rage, to an abraded mind set unable to comprehend such widespread subsistence living. Basically, culture shock is the initial symptom of our bodies and minds trying to normalize and find equilibrium in a foreign and possibly challenging situation. Usually, the initial response to these oftimes upsetting symptoms (discomfort, stress, denial) is to take the first chance to leave, to run away from what is seen as the distress-creating environment. “If I am uncomfortable, I should leave.” If you have formed a good intention to work with yourself when your comfort zone has been breached, your responses will less likely create anxiety, discomfort and resistance.

Culture shock is real, however autogenic or self-generated it may be, and we need to remember; there is positive culture shock. Symptoms of positive culture shock tend more towards such “things” as insight, satiety, peace and joy. Cross-cultural interactions can be deeply enjoyed and there is great potential for cross cultural cooperation on many levels as well. Immersion travel always seems an adventure in discovery, of self and of others. Close, safe encounters with folks of “other” cultures offer a win/win paradigm. For in the process of enriching our minds and hearts, we can discover ways of being of some positive influence within the hosting community.


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Man in bathingsuit standing tall on rock with greenery surrounding.
Jim Kennedy at Reach Falls, Jamaica

Rasta standing in decending branches of a tree, looking up  in Sunning Hill, Jamaica
Mokko in Rasta Reasoning Tree, SunningHill, Jamaica


playing hacky sac
Hacky sac on Blue Mountain, Jamaica

Mayan father spliting a palm frond in two in Belize
Making a thatch roof, Mopan Mayan Homestay, Belize

Stand made from tarps with colorful fruits piled and hanging
Fruit Stand near Zion Country, Jamaica



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Crossing cultures can be a stimulating and rewarding adventure. It can also be a stressful and bewildering experience. This thoroughly revised and updated edition of Furnham and Bochner's classic Culture Shock (1986) examines the psychological and social processes involved in intercultural contact, including learning new culture specific skills, managing stress and coping with an unfamiliar environment, changing cultural identities and enhancing intergroup relations.