From Small Town Comfort to Big City Calamity

We tend to think of culture shock as something that only affects us when we move to a different country.  The truth, however, is that culture shock can occur on many levels and across multiple horizons.  Often it is the unexpected dynamics that cause the greatest impact.  Expats, in particular, often go through two sets of adjustments – one adjusting to a new country, the other settling into a new city.

Even those relocating domestically often experience problems when moving from a small town to a big metropolis.
Skyscrapers in downtown Toronto

Up, up and away

I remember when I was in college; I had a friend from Peoria, Illinois. In his town, he was accustomed to buildings that sprawled out on one floor. 

 I still remember his fascination as I described my high school being five stories tall, and he said, “You mean, in New York, the buildings go UP?!” 

This is a perfect example of one of the first differences you may notice – building size, and height.  Sometimes when I return from a vacation to a place like Arizona, even I feel momentarily claustrophobic in Manhattan though I’ve lived here nearly my entire life. 

This is one of the possible impacts of moving to a big city – you may feel enclosed, boxed in, seeking out sky, and seeing only huge towers in every direction.

The scamper of the rat race

There is something about “the big city” that also impacts social behaviour.
In big cities, it is more likely that people will be in a rush.  They may be late for work or an appointment, and their eyes are often cast downward, or straight ahead, focusing on getting where they need to go.  People walk with purpose, as if there is not enough time.

 In a smaller town, people are more inclined to stroll leisurely.  Time seems to actually move more slowly, and if you try to rush, everyone will probably have a nickname for you.  People are also more likely to look one another in the eye, say hello, or at least smile, as they pass one another.

Where everybody knows your name

This brings me to another point – the experience of being known.  In a small town, people look at you, and notice you.  Even if you feel lonely, you’re likely to find that someone will ask how your day is going, even if they are a relative stranger.  You may even know and spend time with your neighborsneighbours, or store owners.

 In a big city, it’s much more likely that you’ll be isolated – it’s a bizarre paradox, actually.  There are so many more people to meet, but everyone is wrapped up in their own worlds, and don’t seem to have time, so they are less likely to get to know you, and you can easily go an entire day without exchanging any more words apart from “Excuse me” and “I’ll have a ham sandwich on whole wheat bread.”

Taking trust for granted

Another difference you’ll notice when moving from small town to big city is the degree of trust you can have in people. 
I once dated a man from a small town in Ireland.  I felt awful for him one day when we met for lunch and he told me that a man in the street approached him, told him he had an urgent situation and needed to call his family, but had no money.  He asked my boyfriend to loan him a few dollars, which he promised to return. So, my boyfriend, being accustomed to honest, well-intentioned people, loaned the man $20.  The man then ran off, never to return. 
Washington DC Metro

The a-maze-ing metro

Transportation can be overwhelming in a big city.  If you’re used to walking, or perhaps the “Main Street bus”, you may find the metro or subway as mysterious and confusing as a network of arteries and veins until you get used to how they function and familiarize yourself with routes and transfer points.

Even pedestrians can feel pressured – the shift from the slow flow of traffic to a place with race track speeds and little respect for the middle mean can certainly be frustrating. 

Now that we’ve looked at some shifts to expect, let me leave you with a few tips on how you can make the transition a bit easier, and find some familiarity among the “concrete jungle”:

Conquering the concrete jungle

  • If you feel overwhelmed by the height and proximity of city buildings, find the nearest park and spend time there as often as possible.  Being in nature is a great way to literally expand the horizon and take a break.  If the park doesn’t do it for you, then take a train or a bus to a nearby town on the weekends.  This will both help you escape the big buildings, and potentially even help you find some “small town” familiarity.
  • Join a local club, organization, sports team, etc.  It’s a lot easier to meet people, and more likely you’ll become friends, if you find a way to do something that happens repeatedly on a weekly or even monthly, basis.  The more you see the same people, the more inclined they will be to get to know you.
  • It’s unfortunate, but in a big city, you do need to watch your wallet.  I suggest you offer your money to charity rather than hand-outs to every person that asks you.  (And, in a big city, there are a lot of people that will ask you for money, so you’ll quickly go broke if you oblige!)
  • Keep your eyes open for a local store or café that reminds you of home.  Even in a large city, there are places that, once inside, may have items that remind you of something special from the place you’ve moved from.  They may even have a slower pace of life – perhaps just a few people, and a sense of timelessness.  If you happen across one, write down the name and address and visit once in a while.
  • Give yourself permission to adjust.  It will take some time.  If you can keep a journal, it will be a great place for you to review every few weeks to observe how overwhelm or fear might be shifting to confidence and happiness.  Make sure to reward yourself when it does happen!
  • Hire an Expat Coach  - you’ll most likely be able to find many people who have have gone through the same changes as you, and can excellent resources to help you with the transition process.

Heather Markel is a Culture Transition Specialist, helping expats, professionals, and trailing spouses to transition between cultures after relocating. She helps clients through the social, personal, and professional adjustments that often accompany a move - domestically or internationally.
She is a New York Native, but has also had the pleasure of living, working, and studying in France, England, Switzerland, Italy and Washington, DC, as well as the fortune to travel much of the world and experience culture transition first-hand.

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I am a Culture Transition Specialist, helping Expats, Professionals, and Trailing Spouses to transition cultures after...

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