I recently facilitated a team building meeting in person for the first time since March 2020. I have worked with groups by facilitating conflict, team building, engaging in change management, facilitating strategic planning and decision making… and on and on… for the past 10 years. I have built a familiarity and comfort working with groups in all kinds of scenarios and settings. 

Yet, within 30 seconds of being in the room with this team, I was feeling uncomfortable. It didn’t take me long to realize what it was. I was experiencing culture shock. This surprised me, to say the least, and my confidence swayed. I didn’t know where to start.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture shock as: “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.” 

Fortunately, I remembered a key consideration I turn to in all of my work: start from a place of authenticity. I shared with the group that I was feeling culture shock and offered some examples of what was making me feel that way: being in a room with people outside of my normal circles, having to write on a chart paper instead of on a computer and sharing my screen, the smell of the sharpie markers, even feeling I had to memorize names instead of seeing them typed on the screen throughout a meeting. They shared some of the elements that felt strange or shocking to them as well. We connected on our experiences. 

And with that, I was able to dive back into the task at hand. We even referred to culture shock throughout the session (I specifically remember it was a big deal when I thought I got …. A paper cut!!! I can’t remember the last time I had a paper cut!).

I’m sharing this story with you as many of us are changing our daily routines and going to places and spaces we have been before. Like the culture shock of returning home after studying abroad,  the place may be the same, but everything else about it feels different. You are different. The people around you are different. The way you relate to the space and the work is different. Allow space for this to be true. Accept things won’t feel the same, or predictable, or even comfortable at times. 

Keep in mind,  there are many benefits to experiencing culture shock.  These might include heightened intuition, freeing up past blockages, and increased creativity and new ideas. 

If you start to feel culture shock as you change your daily processes and spaces, here are some tips:

  1. Carry a ‘creature comfort’. This could be a special coffee mug or your favorite lunch or wear your most comfortable pants. 
  2. Be transparent. It can help to be honest about what is going on for you at any given moment. Others in the room may be feeling the same! 
  3. Give grace. Gift yourself time and permission to think about what changes you could make to your work life or environment. During this time of transition  reflect, create, and be intentional. 
  4. And most importantly, have a band aid ready for the paper cuts. And maybe some pain reliever… for the marker smell that you are no longer used to. 

These are just a few ideas. I’m sure you can think of many more that will work for you!

Be patient with yourself. Be patient with others. We are all navigating change and discomfort, and uncertainty. 

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds, University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office