How can business travel be less irritating?

Those who return from trips to distant countries often have confusing and incomprehensible experiences behind them: poverty, dirt, chaos. Some travelers also have to go home early because they are not up to the onslaught of the other.

Alois Moosmüller, Professor of Intercultural Communication at LMU Munich researches this topic and explains what culture shock and civilization shock are all about and why both are more of an enrichment than an impairment.

SZ: What exactly would you describe as culture shock?

Moosmüller: Basically, it's not a shock at all. Rather, everyday routines are slowly being broken up, whether in traffic, shopping or making contact. If the other person reacts differently than expected, it is easy to be irritated. From a certain accumulation of such experiences, there is an unconscious questioning of one's own ideas and normality, which triggers a kind of culture shock.

SZ: How does this culture shock affect the traveler?

Moosmüller: There is no irritation because one encounters something different. You can also meet them in the cinema or at the Oktoberfest. It gets irritating because internal learning processes are stimulated. This restructuring of cognitive and emotional attitudes often leads to loss of energy, increasing fatigue and depressive states.

SZ: Everyone who travels abroad has certain foreign experiences. When do we speak of culture shock?

Moosmüller: A distinction has to be made between culture shock and civilization shock. Culture shock is about the internal fine-tuning, which is also necessary when moving to Hamburg, albeit not to the same extent as when moving to Tokyo. People talk differently, behave differently, and react differently to you. In the case of civilization shock, on the other hand, the external life requirements change fundamentally. In India, for example, you have to deal with hygiene problems, different types of food or chaotic traffic conditions and you can no longer build on old habits.

SZ: Is there a culture shock at all when traveling on vacation? The stay is usually limited to a few weeks and the return is certain. Moosmüller: When you travel, you find yourself in a kind of euphoria. You can do what you enjoy. Only after three or four weeks does the appeal of the new slowly decrease and you have to come to terms with the local conditions. But then most of them leave again. On the other hand, those who stay abroad for a longer, continuous period of time begin to rebuild their internal structures and adapt themselves to the other. This will need time.

SZ: Can one become "immune" to culture shock experiences through many stays abroad?

Moosmüller: There are certainly people who do not allow themselves to get much closer. Business travelers often move to so-called "non-places" such as airports, hotels or in their own company, and thus avoid the experience of being different. The vacationer, on the other hand, consciously seeks the other side, the inspiring. He is more afraid of forgetting the exotic experiences and tries to capture them with the camera. However, he cannot keep what is foreign as foreign, but rather sorts it into the existing schemata. This prevents him from being able to preserve what he has experienced in its richness.

SZ: How should you prepare for trips to countries you don't yet know?

Moosmüller: If you want to stay longer and work there, you should prepare for the inner change and mentally go through what is to come. This makes you more flexible and reduces the tendency to flee. The naive following of dos and don'ts lists tends to narrow down and does not do justice to the complexity on the spot. The tourist, on the other hand, has other challenges. He should know as much as possible about the culture, society, history and way of life of the destination country. You can't get rich if you don't know anything. It would be almost as if you had never been there.

SZ: Are there fewer culture shock experiences due to the many media reports about exotic countries?

Moosmüller: Encountering media-conveyed images does not change any affective or cognitive structures. This process only begins when you spend some time in a foreign country and are confronted with the chaos of everyday life. Travel definitely contributes to a certain degree of openness. It leads to a greater willingness to learn and more acceptance towards strangers.

SZ: Should one be positive about a possible culture shock?

Moosmüller: The more adaptive and sensitive you are, the more susceptible you are to culture shock. Culture shock can be very positive. If you want to learn something, you have to actively expand your limits. This process is always painful. You should be happy that you are in a deep, black hole and can pull yourself out again on your own forehead. You will feel better afterwards. On the other hand, you shouldn't promise yourself to understand a culture by taking short vacation trips. But you don't have to look for the learning effect with a student's eye and a guide in hand, you can simply be cheered up by the exotic scenery.