The first in a series of three articles, this article looks at the experience of crossing cultures, particularly as it relates to aliyah. You will learn: what culture shock is, what causes it, and tips for how it can be managed.
Two years after moving to Israel, when even simple activities such as going to the bank or supermarket still presented a formidable challenge to my patience and sanity, I began to seriously question my Aliyah. Had I missed the Habonim camp where they taught us that in Israel the ‘bureaucracy game’ is in fact no game at all but a daily reality? Where was I during the Wizo coffee morning that discussed ‘Israeli warmth - intrusive questioning about marital status - often by complete strangers’?
With the comfort and efficiency of England very much in mind, I decided that life was too short to invest all my energy fighting Israeli landlords, employers, and drivers, and I began planning my return to the UK. The international company that I worked for agreed to transfer my job to the UK but requested that, while still overseas, I research and develop a relocation service to help expatriates deal with cultural transitions.
Despite having moved cultures myself, this project was the first time that I was really exposed to the concept of culture and its impact on how we view and interact with different cultures. Through cross-cultural research I discovered that many of my negative perceptions of Israelis were not wholly accurate and I was, in fact, suffering from a severe case of culture shock - a normal process that all people go through when crossing cultures.
Furthermore, I learnt that with information and practical strategies much can be done to minimize culture shock. The following article offers an insight into the process of crossing cultures, focusing particularly on culture shock - its sources, symptoms, and solutions, to help us deal more effectively with life in Israel.
What Happens When We Cross Cultures
Everyone knows that making Aliyah involves moving to a different culture - but few of us actually understand the extent to which cultural gaps can have an impact on our life in Israel. When people move to a different culture they pass through a number of phases called the Cycle of Cross Cultural Adaptation. These phases are outlined below, relating specifically to the experience of new oleh moving to Israel.
The first phase, Euphoria, occurs on arrival to a new culture. This period is characterised by feelings of excitement and enthusiasm for new culture and people. Differences are seen as interesting and fun. I sometimes refer to this period as the Absorption Centre stage. Although it may be shorter or longer than the few months spent at a ‘Mercaz Klita,’ it is a sheltered and supported time where there is little expectation or need to deal with many of the real challenges inherent in Israeli life.
Unfortunately ‘Euphoria’ tends to be relatively short and is followed by a gradual decline in mood as the new oleh enters ‘Culture Shock.’ This second stage is characterised by a feelings of frustration, confusion, disorientation or just plain incompetence. Olim often feel overwhelmed by newness of sights, sounds, and behaviours that they are confronted with. Although many of the things are not entirely new, they may have a different meaning in Israel relative to our previous culture (e.g. concept of queuing, personal space, eating humus) and our responses don’t always produce expected or wanted results.
As time passes and experience of Israel grows, olim move into Acculturation where they learn and adjust to the different norms and values of the new Israeli culture. Language improves enabling more effective communication; there is a reduced feeling of alienation and self-confidence and competence increases. Life in Israel becomes more enjoyable and sense of humour, which often disappears during culture shock, returns.
Last, but by no means least, olim arrive at the final ‘Stable State’ phase where they feel more stable and settled in Israel. This stage is considered a more permanent level of adjustment where they are able to function effectively and have a more objective, balanced view of the Israeli culture.
Although described separated, in reality, the four phases are not totally distinct, e.g. during Euphoria there can also be moments of disorientation and during Culture Shock one can still experience great highs. One thing often commented on by many olim is the extent and extreme of mood swings during the initial Aliyah period - often they feel a great love for or deep frustration with Israel many times in the space of one day, if not a single hour.
It is also important to note that even though most people pass through the different phases, the length of time spent in each varies greatly depending on an individual’s personality and circumstances. Common to all, however, is the fact that the process of crossing cultures - particularly the ‘make or break’ culture shock phase - can be managed with the correct understanding, motivation and strategies.
Understanding Culture Shock
Historically culture shock was documented in medical journals as a debilitating (and potentially terminal!) disease caught by those suddenly transported abroad. Today, culture shock is understood to be a very natural response, a form of stress experienced by people going to live in a new culture.
For many olim - culture shock is neither fully expected nor recognised. After all Israeli culture involves many customs and traditions more closely related to the cultures that we grew up in e.g. Shabbat, Festivals, and Kashrut. Furthermore, most people making Aliyah have visited Israel before, often numerous times, and as such feel they are already familiar with and accustomed to the Israeli ways.
Expectations aside, the experience of living in Israel is often a far cry from relaxing holidays in Tel Aviv or summers on kibbutz. The day-to-day reality regularly involves Israeli ‘dugri’ (e.g. unnecessary comments on your hair when you’re more than aware that you’re having a bad hair day), banking inefficiency, crazy driving - all this and more without even mentioning Betuach Leumi and Misrad Hapanim bureaucracy.
Faced with these ‘challenges’ olim often make broad judgements either about the inferiority of the Israeli system or population (‘why can’t they just sort it out!’) or their own personal incompetence (‘why is this person shouting at me - what did I do?’). Without actively looking at culture we fail to see that many of our responses e.g. rejecting the new culture or feeling overwhelmed, are universal reactions to culture shock and not Israel or person specific.
Culture Shock can be understood as a form of stress experienced by people facing the demands of living in a new culture without yet having developed the necessary coping skills. Stress occurs in general when the perceived pressures and demands (e.g. moving house, changing job, going overseas, separation from loved ones) placed upon a person exceed their perceived ability to cope. Given that Aliyah involves many general stressful events plus the additional specific demands of learning a new language and cultural rules, it is hardly surprising that Culture Shock occurs.
How Culture Shock shows itself varies across individuals. Symptoms of Culture Shock frequently reported include: frustration, feeling incompetent, lack of confidence, anger, anxiety, disorientation, withdrawal, loss of identity, role confusion, stomach pains, headaches, tiredness, rejection of Israeli culture and idealisation of the previous culture. Have you ever felt frustrated or stupid for not being able to express yourself clearly in Hebrew or follow the conversation of a group of Israelis? Did you ever want to scream when someone at the deli counter states their order loudly above yours when they clearly arrived after you? How about having exaggerated memories that services are alwaysefficient and people are always polite in your previous culture relative to the backward Israeli systems where everyone is either rude or trying to rip you off. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms to a greater extent than you did prior to moving to Israel then you are likely to be going through Culture Shock.
Strategies for Managing Culture Shock
As mentioned, Culture Shock, disturbing as it can feel at times, is not terminal and can be effectively managed. The following practical tips with examples can be helpful in minimizing the negative effects of Culture Shock and speeding up the Acculturation process.
Our expectations affect how we interpret events and what we feel about others and ourselves. Being realistic about what you expect of yourself and believe is expected of you can greatly reduce stress e.g. learning Hebrew takes time - one should not expect to be fluent on the first day - furthermore, Israel as an immigrant country and has an incredibly high tolerance for accents and language imperfections so there is no need to worry about making mistakes.
Be assertive and communicative
Being able to express your needs and say no when necessary are essential survival skills for Israeli life. Generally in Israel if you have something to say - you say it. As such, people don’t assume you want or need something unless you communicate it. Clearly stating your interests at the outset tends to be more appreciated and effective than polite hints or subtle gestures. Although it is important to learn Hebrew - English can, at times, also be used very effectively.
Recognise what can and cannot be controlled
Or in other words ‘pick your fights’ - it is usually a waste of time and energy to try to change key Israeli systems or ‘educating’ Israelis. Certain things are possible and important to address but it is also important to know when to let things go - in many cases things aren't important or can't or don’t need to be changed (its just our perception coming from a different culture that it would be done better ‘our’ way).
Develop and maintain social support
Sharing experiences or just being with people that you feel comfortable with are a huge resource for dealing with culture shock. Often we underestimate the impact of not having the network of friends and family that we grew up with and so it is worth making an extra effort to develop new networks both personally and professionally to feel more settled.
Establish stability zones
These are positive routines or habits we have to help us relax, unwind and generally make us feel good. Taking time out each day to do something familiar and enjoyable e.g. listening to music, watching a particular TV programme, taking an exercise class, cooking, art etc can be a wonderful and much needed break from the stress of settling in a new culture.
Get involved with Israeli culture / learn Hebrew
Knowledge is power - the more you know the more comfortable you will feel. Tempting as it to withdraw wholly into the comfort zones of our own cultural world - it is essential also to dive into Israeli culture and learn the language. The more you are familiar with the entertainment, music, sport, customs etc. in Israel, the easier it is to enjoy them and feel part of the country.
Maintain a sense of humour and perspective
Keeping things in perspective and being able to laugh rather than cry at certain testing situations are both good strategies for dealing with culture shock. Standing back from a scenario and asking ‘Is this my problem? Is this really important?’ can help us see situations as sometimes more funny than frustrating.
Different strategies work for different people. By identifying the things that we find most challenging and finding effective strategies to counteract these, we can pass through Culture Shock and enjoy the many positive aspects of Israeli culture. Understanding more about culture has helped me to change my perspective from a point of extreme frustration and disillusionment to one where I can appreciate all the amazing things about life in crazy country. I’ve now even learnt to supermarket shop with a smile - but I wouldn’t recommend trying to push in front of me.
Katrina Jacobs is a freelance consultant and trainer with K-Consulting providing professional cross-cultural services to individuals and organisations in both the private and public sector.
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