Pandemic Shock: (noun) the feelings of disorientation and stress experienced by someone when suddenly subjected to pandemic-induced changes in their way of life, behavior, and culture.
— (Source: Aspen Pflughoeft)
The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed healthcare systems, countries, economies — and individuals. Many people found their lives overhauled by the pandemic-spurred changes.
Lockdowns have changed how businesses of all shapes and sizes operate. Quarantine has changed lifestyles, relationship dynamics, and behaviors while exposing and exacerbating deep pre-pandemic economic and racial inequities. Reopenings have changed where, when, and how we go places. Shortages have changed our access to essential goods and services. Masks have changed our body language and emotional expressions. Social distancing has changed interpersonal interactions, particularly around strangers and non-family members.
Adjusting to those changes has not been a walk in the park (especially if you’re in lockdown) because we’re not just experiencing a pandemic. We’re experiencing culture shock.
Oxford dictionary defines culture shock as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” It’s that underlying feeling of being overwhelmed by the differences in sights, sounds, and behaviors around you and not knowing how to respond, and feeling a deep sense of not belonging. That slight anxiety of not knowing the socially acceptable way to eat a meal, use public transportation, or greet someone. That sense of feeling slightly out of place, unsure of where and how you fit. That frustration of feeling that the old way — your way — was better, easier, simpler.
We’re experiencing culture shock.
Most commonly, people experience culture shock when they travel to another country or a drastically different region of their own country. Really though, who says culture shock can’t occur within one’s own culture when socially acceptable behaviors change overnight? That’s exactly what this pandemic has caused.
We’re experiencing the culture shock of a pandemic, Pandemic Shock, if you will. We’re having to adjust to a new way of living, a physically-distanced culture that suddenly values public health and cleanliness more than ever before. From small interactions with a store clerk to international politics, the pandemic has caused cultural changes, and done so with a key characteristic — no one chose this. As a Minerva student, I chose to study around the globe and I willingly accepted the cultural adjustment challenges (and opportunities) that would bring. But no one chose this pandemic. The Pandemic Shock that we face now has been forced upon us. The non-consensual but required adjustments have left many of us struggling with feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration.
When considered this way, COVID-19 has put us all in Pandemic Shock. So why not respond accordingly, using what we know about culture shock?
Lessons on Overcoming
Widely studied and more widely experienced, insights on overcoming culture shock provide a starting point for ways to overcome Pandemic Shock. Naturally, adjusting looks different for each individual. Some will adjust quickly while others may struggle. Regardless of where you are in your adjustment journey, commonly effective strategies will still help you along — or help you help someone else.
To set the stage, I am a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, English-speaking female, raised mostly in the Midwest U.S., even attending the same small school kindergarten to graduation. For me, any place that wasn’t flat and corn-covered was drastically different from my usual. I have always enjoyed travelling, but I had never been away from the corn-fields of the Midwest for more than four weeks before moving to San Francisco my first year at Minerva.
Naturally, living in SF came as a jolt… as did Seoul and Hyderabad this past year. From small slips (like the first time grocery shopping in Seoul, when I forgot to take a backpack and hauled sooo many heavy bags back to the res hall) to major mistakes (like when I didn’t cover my head before entering a particular Hindu temple in Hyderabad or shook a Muslim man’s hand in SF not knowing that he only wanted to make skin contact with his wife), I have learned to adjust to the culture around me.
Through trial and error, I’ve gathered a personally-tested and personally-proven arsenal of adjustment tips and tools:
- Give yourself time — adjusting is a process and if you do not recognize this, you will struggle to progress. Regardless of how emotionally strong or resilient you are, a little kindness and patience for yourself will go a long way when you get frustrated. Expecting yourself to adjust quickly is not always realistic and can lead to toxic self-shaming.
- Talk openly about the adjustment with the people around you — most of them will be adjusting right alongside you. By opening this topic of discussion, you may prompt suggestions, advice, or simply solidarity to know that you are not in this alone.
- Find ways of relieving stress — whether that means calling a solid friend, picking up mindfulness practices, working out regularly, facing the stressor head-on, or something else, an outlet for stress is always beneficial.
- Keep an open mind and do not assume that you know best (or that your way is best) — Consider the importance of being socially responsible more than being “right.” So put aside your judgement (but not common sense). Approach differences with compassion and curiosity. Just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s wrong, like Korea’s metal chopsticks instead of the wood ones common in the U.S.
- Find small ways to build a routine — this gives you a sense of normalcy and control even in the craziest of circumstances. For me, having my own morning routine is a key part of transitioning into and out of new environments. In SF, my routine involved walking to my favorite cafe for class. In Seoul, a few minutes reading on my bed replaced the daily walk. While in Hyderabad, I found solace sitting on my balcony with a cup of chai in the cool of morning.
- Dig into a few creative pursuits — maybe this is an instrument (like my flatmate in India who picked up a cheap guitar), art medium, or writing form to return to or start anew. Personally, journaling has helped carry me across countless cultures over the years.
In total honesty, we do not always enjoy culture shock, Pandemic Shock, or really any change at all. We may honestly still think deep down that our way was better or that the current restrictions are ‘overblown,’ ‘ridiculous,’ or ‘burdensome.” But cultural adjustments are not always for you. They are also for the people around us to be safe and cared for.
Because, let’s face it, the pandemic is not over. The effects will linger for a long time to come — and who knows what other unforeseen changes may come in the future. Being prepared to adapt, adjust, and transform will help you grow into a more socially responsible individual.
As we all adjust to new video-calling platforms, social norms and expectations, educational functioning, international regulations, and everything in between, overcome the Pandemic Shock with kindness and graciousness, for others and for yourself. At the end of the day, you can’t leave yourself behind just like you can’t ignore that this is not just about you. This is a long way from over; but we can and we will overcome and transform through the journey, despite the growing pains along the way.