Published: 21.10.13

How to avoid culture shock

A group of Master students from abroad share their first impressions of Switzerland and the Swiss. Samuel van den Bergh, expert on intercultural management, shows them how to see beyond the stereotypical surface layered with chocolate and cheese.

Angela Harp
Samuel van den Bergh:
Samuel van den Bergh: "The secret to overcoming culture shock is to retain your sense of humour." (Photo: Angela Harp, ETH Zurich) (large view)

The Swiss are: punctual, rich, chocolate lovers, workaholics, too precise, passionate yodelers. These are some of the stereotypes a group of international Master students attributed to Swiss people when asked to give their first impressions.

Such clichés about a culture are normal impressions that foreigners have as they begin their lives abroad says Samuel van den Bergh, who teaches Intercultural Management at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Winterthur: “Stereotypes are the first pictures we have. In being away from home and what is familiar, differences become more pronounced as foreigners attempt to identify with unfamiliar surroundings.”

As the number of foreign students and researchers continues to increase at ETH Zurich, the Rectorate organises this integration workshop, among offering other student services, to welcome and support their stay. Recently around 100 new Masters students from around 30 different countries gathered for a workshop entitled “Understanding the Swiss – Going beyond Stereotypes.”

Breaking the ice

Identification with a host culture occurs initially at a surface level, whereby the processing of foreign space is visual. Differences in material things, behaviour and language, for example, are detected and can trigger both positive and negative reactions from the observer. “Why do the Swiss have bomb shelters if they don’t ever go to war?” one student from the audience asked. “Why the fascination with rubbish and the special bin liners?” asked another. Safety and order are very important to Swiss people, responds van den Bergh.

Going beyond the surface level, a foreigner will eventually begin to chip into the iceberg of a culture. At this stage, what is initially invisible in a particular culture – values, beliefs, norms and assumptions – become more apparent. Adjusting to a foreign culture may depend on how deep one is rooted in their own culture. A Korean living in Switzerland may find it hard to accept a Swiss person smoking in front of the elderly, for instance. “To get along in a foreign country, you can’t assume sameness and you must be aware that the norms and values you grew up with are not always shared,” says van den Bergh. “There are no wrong or right values, just different ways of looking at things. And it’s okay if you don’t like these differences, but understanding the rationale behind them may help you cope.”

A matter of time

“I love Switzerland! Everything works here, it’s awesome,” exclaims Tina, one of the Masters student at the workshop who just arrived from Slovenia. Generally the adjustment process that leads to breaking through can last anywhere from three to six months, in some cases even longer. Most go through what is referred to as the ‘honeymoon phase’ where everything is new and exciting, and therefore seen in a positive light. This is usually followed by a period of disillusion where one strongly senses the cultural inconsistencies, which then heightens the feeling of foreigness. “Building up a social life is hard,” says Stan a chemistry student from Holland who’s been in Switzerland for about six months. “Going out is expensive and the Swiss don’t like to be spontaneous. Everything has to be planned in advance.”

Culture shock occurs when foreigners become frustrated and confused by the overload of new and unpredictable issues. They have a hard time dealing with differences and feel completely lost. Breaking through the shock does not happen automatically either, and some may never snap out of it. But recovery requires that one accepts the differences, recognises the challenges and tries to focus on the positive things about the host country.

According to Samuel van den Bergh, the secret to overcoming culture shock is to retain your sense of humour and remember that actually you are the odd visitor. As a wise man once put it: “It is rather the stranger in a foreign country who is exotic.”

But do punctuality, wealth and yodeling have anything to do with Switzerland? “On the surface they do,” van den Bergh explains to the workshop participants, “but one must learn not to throw a whole nation into one pot."