One aspect of culture that can affect our experience of culture shock is space. People relate to space in different ways. This is true on both a personal and cultural level.

Let me give you two examples:

Los Angeles. When I first moved to Southern California, I thought: where are all the people? I knew people used their cars much more than where I’d been living before, but until that moment I hadn’t understood that there’s a (completely logical) flip side to that coin: If you’re sitting in your car, you’re not walking. Obvious. But it also meant that the sidewalks looked empty and lifeless to me. It felt de-stabilizing, like the collective energy of people going about their daily lives was drained away, absorbed by miles of asphalt. This, in addition to the low buildings, huge lanes and wide open spaces felt liberating but they could sometimes also feel like a void. A void that at times seemed filled with the concept of personal space.

relating to space

Uyuni, Bolivia

Singapore. In Singapore the lesson I learned about space was different. One day, I tried to get to the customer services counter to return an item I had bought. It was like a giant huddle. If you wanted to reach the customer service counter, you had to join the huddle. By the time I reached the counter and a customer service representative noticed me, people were leaning on my back, my arms (on both sides) and craning their necks around me to get the attention of said representative. There was no expectation of privacy to handle money or explain why you were returning a product. Not that it was necessary but I’m just not a fan of handling money in front of a crowd.

So regardless of country, here are a few things to think about when we experience culture shock: our experience of this (for us) new relation to space, our understanding of our own relation to space (back home) and processing both to develop a new way of relating to our surroundings.

For tips on how to handle this, take a look at Culture Shock – A Practical Guide.