Guide to Culture Shock

by Rachel Neiman

Introduction
The Aliya Process Model
Dealing with the Folks Back Home
Learning Hebrew Isnt Easy
Making Contact
Learning to Cope
Accepting Differences
Returning Israelis and Re-entry Shock
Mixed Couples
Children
Business Culture Shock
Conclusion



Introduction

The American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), ranks "immigration" only second below "loss of spouse" as a cause of stress. Simply put, going from one country to live in another is a very stressful situation. Unfortunately, its often hard to perceive that stress from within the boundaries of a largely immigrant society.

Even aliya office representatives (shlichim) abroad and in Israel, as well as other immigrants, all of whom are in a position to better discern stress, dont always treat the problem - commonly known as culture shock - with the seriousness it deserves.

Culture shock, says Jerusalem-based therapist Nomi Raz, of the AACI Comprehensive Psychological Service, is like entering a new playing field: "You know you want to play quickly, you want to win, you want to be masterful - but you dont know the rules". This situation, she says, "creates fear, helplessness, and confusion". To compensate, olim sometimes develop something called cultural superiority, a defense mechanism that takes fear and turns it around into withdrawing and feeling critical; "This would never happen in America", is the constant refrain, she says, which stems from "feeling very bad about yourself".

"Aliya is an enormous change. Your whole homeostasis, the balance between the components of everyday life, is under stress."

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The Aliya Process Model

Raz cites a generic model developed for olim and aliya . Although the process generally takes about three years, all of the stages are variable.

  1. Euphoria The first stage, the honeymoon, is a high which can last anywhere from 10 minutes to 6 months. "At this point Israel is wonderful".

  2. Depression The second stage is depression, an intense culture shock, characterized by a sense of homesickness, nostalgia for the familiar and a sense of loss. The second stage is also characterized by a negative stereotyping of Israelis; "a sense of them and us, and of not wanting to be around them", says Raz.

    "Another thing that happens in the second stage is cognitive dissonance, a feeling that ones emotions and intellect dont match up. The person says to themselves intellectually I know why I came but emotionally I think Ive made a mistake. They may suffer depression about learning Hebrew - some people even develop a bit of paranoia, and feel Israelis are laughing at the way they speak. They suffer from low self esteem - Ill never learn, Ive failed - Other classic signs of depression in this stage: gaining or losing weight, over- or under-sleeping, headaches, weeping, a low mood and a feeling of what the hell did I do"?

  3. Adjustment The good news is that this stage passes. The next stage is gradual adjustment. The depression is alleviated, and Hebrew-learning increases. "You can find what you need in the supermarket and you feel good about that. Theres a sense that things are okay" Raz explains.

  4. Disillusionment Stage four depression comes about a year after stage two depression. "Its very different from the second stage," says Raz. "By this time the person has a job, the kids are in school, life has fallen into a routine. The feeling is: Is that all there is"?

    "This stage is characterized by the feeling that aliya was supposed to improve life in a more meaningful way and it didnt." At this point, Raz says, each person must do some private accounting of their innermost checks and balances, "in order to decide if they want to be here or not. If they do want to be here, they go on to the next stage".

  5. Bi-culturalism is the sense of being able to function and live a full life in both cultures. "People say to themselves: For whatever reason Ive decided to stay".

    "The Catch 22 is that you have to wait till youre bi-cultural in order to decide if you want to be bi-cultural. Otherwise you may being influenced by the normative depression [of Stage 2]. I advise olim to give the process up to three years before making a final decision".

    This model is not carved in stone, Raz is careful to point out, The bottom line: "during the initial period of time there are tremendous adjustments that need to be made and fluctuations in mood, that should be recognized".

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    Dealing with the Folks Back Home

    There are two central issues that impede the adjustment process, says Raz. The first is separation from family - "The importance of this is often underestimated by other olim and shlichim," says Raz. Shlichim are often guilty of comparing the situation where parents and children live on either coast in the US with living in Israel. Even though in both cases, a long plane ride is all that separates the two, the emotional divide is much deeper.

    "The people making aliya and their families have to go through a period of mourning, as in any separation", says Raz. She cites Elizabeth Kubler-Ross book "On Death and Dying" as a parallel:

  6. Shock and denial Parents ignore the notion of aliya even when it is brought up directly.

  7. Anger "How dare you do this to us"?

  8. Bargaining "Parents ask for another year, offer to pay for graduate school or a house. "Why dont you do something less drastic?, they ask".

  9. Sadness and loss Parents experience the feeling that the child is already gone. "This is the stage when youll come across them crying in the kitchen".

  10. Acceptance or resignation Both parents and children resign themselves to a quality, rather than quantity relationship. "Not everybody reaches that stage", Raz points out.

    The problems of separation are exacerbated at certain points. "When youre going through Stage 2 these feelings haunt you even more," says Raz. "You say to youself: Not only am I miserable but Ive made my family miserable as well. These problems have to be worked through and its better to recognize them than ignore them".

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    Learning Hebrew Isnt Easy

    People from western countries, who are used to expressing themselves very well and being understood, can get fed up with sounding like an precocious five-year-old, rather than an adult. "Hebrew is a very big deterrent. Speaking can be humiliating and raises issues of self image. This is an error, because language is not a sign of intelligence. North Americans in particular, who are not used to speaking second languages, feel marginalized. They dont speak up in public. Some people say theyve developed language blocks, but there is no such thing".

    What does prevent people from learning is "a combination of putting pressure on yourself, associating language with self esteem and a sense of hopelessness". It takes between 3 to 7 years to learn Hebrew, says Raz, "which is not what they tell you".

    The trick, says Raz, is having a sense of humor. "Olim have to be willing to sound like children. They cant be perfectionists. If theyre not willing to make mistakes, they will have a harder time".

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    Making Contact

    There are things you can do to help yourself become bi-cultural, says Raz, "You need to understand that Israelis have networks. Although things have changed, this is still a country largely based on connections, proteczia, who you know. olim need to able to reach out and talk to people, anyone, people in line at the post office - you never know who has a friend who has an apartment or a job available - the beauty of this country is the people. Everyone has a story if you are willing to listen".

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    Learning to Cope

    Olim need to do is develop coping skills or ways to get things done. Says Raz: "In the US, for example, Jews have adopted the WASP culture, which says 'dont get out of control, be reserved, and if youre angry, lower the tone of your voice, speak slowly, use understatement'. In Israel you raise your voice." Shouting when youre not angry is something olim might have to learn.

    When it comes to bureaucracy, "if youre friendly and polite, you can, for the most part get what you need done. In Israel there are all sorts of other ways: raising your voice, flirting, asking to speak to the manager, crying, making jokes, speaking English only". The rule of thumb: An olehs gotta do what an olehs gotta do.

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    Accepting Differences

    The issues of privacy and personal space are all different in Israel, says Raz, and shouldnt be stereotype negatively too quickly. "Israelis talk about money, rents and salaries; Americans dont. They visit their parents every Sabbath; in the US you might see your parents twice a year. They take their cell phones on vacation; Americans leave them at home. There are millions of examples but the point is, you only start to realize them when you come to live here. When they happen, instead of saying: 'This would never happen in the US', be a sort of mini-sociologist and say: What does this mean"?

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    Returning Israelis and Re-entry Shock

    According to Lucy Shahar, co-author (with David Kurz) of the book Border Crossings : American Interactions With Israelis (Intercultural Press) the problems encountered by Israelis re-entering Israeli society after being away is as serious as any other form of culture shock. Its often not recognized as such either by those suffering the symptoms, or those around them.

    The model of re-entry shock, Shahar says, "has the same curve as culture shock: the initial feeling of euphoria, the feeling youve returned home, people speaking your language, the smells and tastes are familiar, everything is wonderful. That lasts for a short period of time (several weeks to two months) before the second stage".

    Shock usually sets in "after that youre hit by a situation where your behavior gets an unexpected response. Lets say youve been in North America. Your body language is more reserved, youre not used to bureaucracy, youre used to a certain level of professional behavior. All of a sudden the things you were happy to return to - the warmth and spontaneous behavior - start driving you crazy". In many cases, Shahar says "you spend a lot of time crying, or feeling angry and frustrated.

    At this stage, the person may also "realize theyre not the same person they were when they left Israel. Lets say you enter a meeting and it seems disorganized. Or, youre working on a team and it seems no one is listening to the team leader".

    "The most important difference between re-entry and culture shock, is the loneliness of re-entry. No one understands what youve been through. Theyre interested, but only to a limited extent".

    There may also be physical discomforts, such as returning to a sublet apartment and finding it a mess, or simply smaller than remembered. "You may come back to your job and find your chair is literally not there". In short: you dont function as an Israeli as well as you did before you left. Your norms and behavior codes have changed".

    Stage three is a period of partial adjustment to the return. "Things become easier," says Shahar. "You regain your sense of humor. You find your place with old friends, or you make new friends - maybe other ex-ex-pats - and you find a way to blend the best of both cultures".

    The fourth step, adjustment, is a theoretical ideal. Explains Shahar: "Any time theres a transition you go through a culture shock, whether its going from being single to married, moving from Connecticut to Texas, etc".

    What returning Israelis (as compared with olim) have going for them is the strength of family, which can ease the strain. "Theres a collective society here," says Shahar. "The group strongly supports people when they return, even if theyve been away a long time".

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    Mixed Couples

    Severe problems can erupt among couples where one spouse is Israeli and the other one isnt. "If the spouse hasnt made a real process of commitment to aliya , and if the non-Israeli spouse is unhappy, then a victim/aggressor relationship can arise". The non-Israeli spouse "has to go through the decision making process, and decide if he/she can really live here. The non-Israeli must re-evaluate and accept responsibility for his/her decision". Additionally, both partners have to be willing to re-evaluate their decision after a certain period of time, and the Israeli spouse may have to accept leaving Israel, if it comes to that.

    Another issue arises in cases where the Israeli partner is a woman, says Raz. "She becomes the empowered one, his male ego may be wounded. They need to understand she is no longer the dependent one, as she was abroad".

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    Children

    In the case of very young children, says Raz, "culture shock is a reflection of how the parents are doing. If one or both parents are depressed, the kids will reflect that".

    "Adolescent olim do terribly here and many of them do not adjust. Adolescence is a hard time anyway, when many kids get their sense of identity from the peer group". If put in a situation where they have no peer group, adolescents suffer. "This is an age that needs stability. I wouldnt go on sabbatical or on shlichut with adolescents either".

    The situation is less grim for those adolescents who speak Hebrew, or are somewhat familiar with Israeli culture. And while its hard for returning Israeli children to find their old friends are hanging out with other kids, once they re-enter their hevre (social group), they usually adjust rapidly.

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    Business Culture Shock

    In "Border Crossings", authors Shahar and Kurtz give an example of the difference between Israel and North American culture called the coloring book metaphor. In short: North Americans stay within the lines. Israelis color outside the lines. "In metaphorical terms", says Shahar, "the lines of the North American coloring book are clear, while the lines in the Israeli coloring books are fuzzy to begin with and are therefore easier to cross, or they are clearly defined but regarded as challenge [to cross]."

    As expressed in the workplace, it means "the lines between managers and subordinates are blurred. There is a casual attitude towards rules and regulations. Plans are meant to be changed".

    A lot of the things that bother olim will also bother returning Israelis who have worked in the North American corporate culture, Shahar points out. The lines between the social, personal, and professional selves are also blurred. In the US, you put on a professional demeanor when you go to work. In Israel, this is regarded as extremely false. The style of thinking, problem solving, and improvisation is also different. North Americans look on improvisation as risk taking. Israelis like to push that envelope".

    Shahar and Kurz define "culture", in part, as "tendencies that are encouraged or discouraged by a society". In North America, self-control and restraint gets rewards. "This emphasis of self-control, which is adopted from the British, is very difficult for a lot of Israelis. Not when it comes to repressing deep emotions but when expressing anger, or dissatisfaction. The Israel ethos of rosh gadol - literally, "big head", meaning taking an interest outside your limited sphere - may be perceived as an intrusion on the part of North Americans".

    The literal translation of a word like "plan" or "informal" isnt enough, says Shahar. "Americans constantly feel Israelis arent sticking to agreements but [they must] understand the Israeli image of plan is different. You have to look at cultural meanings of a word. For example, "individualism" in Israel means not only the master of ones own fate but no one is going to tell me what do!. The social distance and respect for authority reflected in the French language - by vous and tu, for instance - doesnt exist in Hebrew".

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    Conclusion

    Adjusting, or re-adjusting, to a culture doesnt happen quickly and those who come from North America have a big problem with ambivalence, because its nice over there.

    According to Nomi Raz, an Israeli survey has shown the profile of the most successful oleh isnt necessarily the one with the best Hebrew, but "the one with a sense of humor and adventure, possessing flexibility and the ability to form intimate relations. In addition, those successful olim have a philosophical reason for being here, so when the going gets rough you can say, its worthwhile".

    Returning Israelis generally feel ambivalent - and guilty - about having left Israel at all. Lucy Shahar cites a Canadian study of two expatriate groups which showed Israeli expatriates, as compared with Japanese-Canadians, never view their host country as home - even if they make the decision to stay there.

    Having made the decision to come to Israel, says Raz, "you have to make a commitment and try to make it work for you. You can always go back there, but youll never have these years of your life back, so you should allow yourself to fully be here".

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    AACI Comprehensive Psychological Service
    Tel: 972 2 563 8118
    Fax: 972 2 566 1186

    Border Crossings
    Lucy Shahar and David Kurz
    Intercultural Press



    Coming Home / Taxes and Tariffs / Employment / Housing / Schools, Health Funds and the IDF / Guide to Culture Shock / The "Globes" Hot List for Returning Israelis and New Olim
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