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What is Cultural Fatigue?

Cultural fatigue can be defined as a state of being where the small, adverse intricate of the culture begin to bother you out of reasonable proportion after living in another country for an extended amount of time. You may become culturally fatigued

“. . . I found myself reacting to situations much more aggressively than I had earlier in the field work. I was edgy, irritable, and even resentful against the villagers. Not only was I feeling these emotions but I also began to express them in my relationships in the village. My actions were very disturbing to me. I tried as best I could at the time to analyze what was happening to me.” – Delmos J. Jones, Cultural Fatigue: The Result of Role-Playing in Anthropological Research

VILLA DE LEYVA, Colombia- Cultural fatigue can be defined as a state of being where the small, adverse intricate of the culture begin to bother you out of reasonable proportion after living in another country for an extended amount of time. You may become culturally fatigued when the constant attention that you must pay to even the most minor inter-cultural interactions seems to take more effort than what it’s worth, when you get sick of trying to figure out another society and/ or your place in it, when the struggle for respect becomes too annoying to continue, or when constantly cross-examining yourself as to whether you took the right action in the right situation becomes unbearable. It takes far more energy to navigate and interact in a foreign culture than your own, and after doing this for a long time the little adjustments that you must make daily begin to take their toll, and you feel tired, fed up, fatigued.

Cultural fatigue often happens when you get to a point in a culture where you not only can still see the riddles and realize that you will never be able to answer them, but obsessive continue trying anyway.

Most travelers go abroad as self-professed anthropological sleuths — set and ready to figure out a people and a place, to learn new ways, to see things from a different perspective. The big mysteries of culture — the societal structure, relationship patterns, personal resource acquisition — are mind candy for those trying to understand their world. Though these cultural differences can be seen as inconvenient, annoying, or even frightening, they tend to have some underlying essence that travelers crave. These differences are what we go abroad for, we travel the world searching for “Aha!” moments when some seemingly askance aspect of a culture all of a sudden makes sense.

This additional energy needed to exist abroad is part of the stimulation that makes the traveling lifestyle addictive, but, like any addiction, it can also wear you out.

[adsense]But it is not the big differences in culture that really wear down the traveler, but the little things: the the small cultural twitches. More people are killed per year by mosquitoes than lions, tigers, bears, and snakes all together. It is the little things that kill. I can also say this for cultural fatigue. The big cultural differences can be mastered, it is the most basic, asinine seeming quirks that add up over time, and eventually wear down the most stalwart of traveler. The little things — like how the people in the street look at you, or always needing to be on your guard against losing a few pennies, or seeing something constructed stupidly — are what often breaks a person down in a foreign country.

One of the things that would drive me insane about China was how some people would often say “ting bu dong” — he doesn’t understand or I don’t understand you — when I did understand what they said and replied to them in their own language. I would almost have to punch some of them in the face to get them to cue into the fact that I was speaking acceptable Chinese and they could understand me if they only stopped saying ting bu dong.

I laugh about this bothering me now, as I have been away from China for many years and it seems link this was too insignificant of an even raise an eyebrow over, much less a fist.

In Latin America, acts of commerce are what often gets to me. I’ve traveled for many years in Central and South America and Mexico, I’ve spend nearly half of my traveling life in these regions, I speak OK Spanish. Everything seems cool and normal here on the outside — I know that I should be completely comfortable here — but the daily attention that I must pay towards every interchange of commerce gets to me after a while. I am grow tired very quickly of being nickled and dimed, of thinking about money, and in dealing with some very strange inter-cultural exchanges over petty commerce. This is not a new challenge in the least, but this just makes it even the more draining: I’ve been here before, it is the same old, same old BS.

Four times in two weeks in Villa de Leyva I’ve had arduous interactions over money. Except for one incident — a ridiculous attempt at short changing me which I previously mentioned — the amounts of money in question were seriously small ($1 or under). But this fact does not mean that the underlying intent did not bother me in extreme disproportion to what was materially at stake.

But I’ve been here before, why is this bothering me?

It is bothering me because I’ve been here before, this is cultural fatigue.

The cafe

I went to the same cafe in Villa de Leyva 10 mornings in a row. Three different hostesses served me cafe con leche, and on nine of these occasions the cost was 1,500 pesos. On the tenth day, I returned, ordered a cafe con leche from the same girl who served it to me seven times before, and paid with a 2,000 peso bill when I’d finished.

She didn’t give me any change. That’s weird. I asked for my change.

“The price is 2,000 pesos.”

“No, it is 1,500.”

“No, it’s 2,000.”

“It says here that it is 1,500,” I replied while pointing to a menu that clearly had 1,500 printed on it.

“The prices went up.”

“When did they go up? Yesterday?”

“15 days ago.”

She was lying to me. I was feeling myself growing angry. I checked myself — the difference was 30 cents, not worth getting angry over, of being that guy — the asshole tourist who yells over 30 cents. She was holding onto my 2,000 peso note with an iron grasp, and I was not about to pry it from her hands. She was not smiling, she was in for a battle. Not worth it. I leave the cafe.

It was just 30 cents — truly not any amount of money to worry about — but I was overtly bothered. Should I have battled it out, fought for respect, my change, should I have returned, talked to a manager and set the ledger straight? Was I being weak by walking away or smart?

It was not a matter of money that bothered me, but a matter of not being able to understand why a person would act this way. The interaction consumed me, I tried to come up with a reason that could explain why a person who was friendly throughout seven interactions all of a sudden shifted face the eighth time we meet and decided to charge me more money, lie about it, then hold hard to her guns.

Why did this happen? Why? WTF? The more I thought about this, the more I tried to think of what adjustments I could make to prevent this from happening again, and the more worn out I got. “It was 30 cents, no point wasting mental bandwidth over it,” I told myself. But it was not the 30 cents that bothered me, it was a my inability to make sense of the situation.

The restaurant

Each day in Villa de Leyva I would go to a nice restaurant with my family and order their set lunch. The price was 8,000 pesos — a touch more than what I want to spend on lunch — but the food was amazing and in good proportions.

Each time I would go up to pay the waitress would write down the cost of the meal in a little ledger book — 16,000 — and also what we would get — 2 menus. On around the fifth day I looked at this ledger book a little more closely. All down the ledger it was written: “1 menu – 7,000, 2 menu – 14,000.” There were no other charges in a multiple of eight on the entire sheet, the other customers were paying 7,000 pesos.

I mentioned it to the waitress and nodded towards the ledger, thinking that maybe there was a simple explanation — maybe everybody else who order the lunch menu didn’t get soup or something. But the waitress just flipped the book over and reasserted, “the price is 8,000.”

I paid and left the restaurant. I wasn’t not angy: the restaurant can charge me whatever they want, it is my choice to buy their food or not. But there seemed to be a duel pricing system in place, and to be charged 50 cents more just because of my national origin was annoying — especially as my family would talk with the owners of the restaurant regularly as we dined. I was bothered, I could not help feeling but feel insulted. I thought of what adjustments I could make to get around this cultural twitch, and became aggravated, I kept dancing over 50 cents in my mind. It was fatiguing.

I saw the owner in the street a few days later. He smiled jovially at me, shook my hand, patted me on the back. He told me that his restaurant was my restaurant. I responded politely, but knew I would not pay him another gringo tax.

The sandwich shop

I would go to a deli for lunch almost every evening in Villa de Leyva. My family became friends with the husband and whife who ran the place. They would stack my sandwiches with meat, give little sweets to my daughter. For many days in a row my sandwiches were the same price, then, one day, they were more.

The lady rounded up my charge to the nearest whole bill amount. I chalked it up to a potential error and mentioned it. The lady disagreed with me and told me the price of each item I bought again. But the prices she recited were actually lower than what I had previously thought, making the margin of error even larger.

I shrugged and walked away — win some you lose some. But at the door I stopped short, turned around, returned to the counter, and had the lady add up the bill once again. She did, admitted an error, and then returned my money. I felt like an ass.

Each time I returned to the deli our interactions were straight business. My one time acquaintances would now just show me the numbers on their calculator instead of telling me the price. There was noticeably less meat on my sandwiches, less conversation. Seemingly, I’d offended them — though the mistake was theirs, I felt as though I was the one who ripped them off.

Did I do the right thing? I mulled this question over, it wore me out.

The spider webs of inter-cultural interaction

I personally know I become culturally fatigued, however fatigue is often too mild of word, I can be exhausted, and consumed by frustration anger. I have developed many coping mechanisms that allows me to perpetually travel and continually change cultures. I ride an emotional roller coaster and must be continually in touch with my emotions or lose the plot.

I will be exploring this concept in small doses, the denial, anger, shame, and rage that can be elicited by this discussion of cultural fatigue is incredible. Andy Graham, Cultural Fatigue

These little, seemingly minor blips in inter-cultural relations have the power to wear at a traveler. They make you realize that you momentarily lose you bearings in a place, and it takes energy to find them again. You cannot travel on auto-pilot, you can never just ” act” in travel — you must think first then act, always. Being challenged in what would be the simplest of interactions at home keeps you alert in travel, but it is also what wears you out. Facing the same ridiculous challenges day after day creates fatigue.

Cultural fatigue is like a dream of being on a game show day after day where you are always asked the same question, but you inevitable always answer wrong. You can’t get it right because the answer keeps changing. You can’t win, so you either withdraw, explode, go home, or move through it.

Cultures are spider webs inside of spider webs: as soon as you get one pattern down you are shown another, deeper, pattern that you again cannot understand.

Traveling around a country thinking everyone is going to rip you off is a sickness, it becomes a weight that is heavy to bear, and it can ruin a trip. I do not think that everyone is trying to rip me off in Colombia, but these three incidents that I mention above kept me on my toes. They wore me out because I cannot explain them. I ask “why?” but only get annoyed. Why am I paying 50 cents more to eat than everyone else at the restaurant? Why would the girl at the coffee shop charge just decide to charge me more one day? Why would the sandwich shop people round up my bill and then become offended that I mentioned it?

Asking these questions, to adjust to these situations, is to become fatigued.

Cultural fatigue is an occasional part of travel, it is a sign that you have collected enough experiences to begin seeing through the outer crust of a place, that the patterns of a culture are making themselves known to you, that you are getting down to the deeper layers of the cultural spider web. All “culture” is is a set of behavioral patterns, so getting to know these patterns — even though occasionally onerous — is part of the learning process of travel.

When you begin feeling fatigued in a culture for the first time, treat it as a sign of learning — the patterns that you observe are beginning to come together, the people are becoming more real, you are beginning to see through your inter-cultural blinders, and you are beginning to see not only another culture but your place in it. Knowing your place — how you are viewed — in another country is perhaps what breaks many travelers. The lack of respect that they are shown is often too much to handle: they become fatigued, explode, and go home. Cultural fatigue is perhaps a defensive mechanism, a way of closing the doors that you’ve opened into a culture because you don’t like what you see. You get angry over the small stuff because you now know enough to sense what it truly represents.

Travel is about self mastery. You will never master another place, another culture, another person, but you can attempt to master yourself. Facing the same little battles daily on the road is fatiguing, but there is not anything you can do about it: you can’t control another person, but you can control how you react to them.

I decide if I let a 30 cent deliberation ruin my day, I decide if I waste mental bandwidth thinking about the seeming stupidity or lack of respect shown by the people around me. If nothing else, working through a culture that fatigues you is to grow a thicker skin. To go home, abscond, or leave for another part of the world is to treat the symptoms of cultural fatigue rather than the cause.

———————–

I remember watching a European woman in Bangkok start screaming at a girl running an internet cafe because she tried to charge her the equivalent of 25 cents for an unanswered phone call. The Thai girl screamed back, and the two ended up beaning each other with random office supplies that they picked up off the desk that separated them. This was over 25 cents, but there was a deeper interaction at play: the European was probably fed up with being ripped off and disrespected throughout her vacation and the Thai girl was probably sick of dumb tourists. But after the European woman stormed off into the street crying — her day ruined — the Thai girl burst out in laughter and went back to business as usual, seemingly unphased.

I had just watched the Thai girl fly off in a fit of anger, violently bean a person with a clock radio, and then immediately flip back to normal as though the entire show was not done with a thread of true emotion.

There was a lesson to be learned here: indifference. This is perhaps one of the most difficult skills of travel to cultivate, but if you are to travel the world and remain sane, it is one that is truly needed. That Thai girl yelled and screamed and got violent, but she did not let this show consume her. She fought, yes, but she was emotionally removed from what she was fighting for. When the fight was over, it was over. 

Indifference does not mean inaction, it means standing emotionally separate from action, it means not dwelling on what has already come to pass. When the fight is over, it is over. This is perhaps the only way to overcome cultural fatigue.

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Filed under: Colombia, Culture and Society, South America, Tourism, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3421 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

14 comments… add one

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  • Da Nuck September 10, 2011, 12:48 pm

    Wade ,
    Being a bit familiar with Colombia,
    I was told by an ex-pat that has lived there for many years that there is a five tear pricing structure in Colombia.
    The best price is for relatives.
    2nd. best is for friends
    3rd. best is for other native Colombian’s.
    4th. is for ex-pats that live there.
    The worst prices is for tourists. (Not that your a tourist but they may think of you as such)

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard September 10, 2011, 5:04 pm

      Yeah, I’m totally in the fifth price bracket haha. Though is a couple of these instances, I thought I should have at least been included in the fourth. Thanks for sharing this run down, will be on the look out for it.

      Link Reply
      • Da Nuck September 12, 2011, 7:06 pm

        Ya, even though I don’t dig it meself, I am mostly in the fifth bracket too.
        I simply try not to get ripped-off.
        When it does happen, I say “Damn they got me, good for them”. have a little laugh
        and move on knowing that that (hopefully) it won’t happen again.
        As you know there is the “Tourist ” price then then is the “stupid Gringo” tourist price.

        Link Reply
        • Wade Shepard September 12, 2011, 9:39 pm

          Haha, excellent distinction. Just so were not in the stupid gringo bracket, I think we’re doing alright.

          Link Reply
    • Jenna August 25, 2013, 1:39 am

      What stings, I think, is feeling you should be at or near the “friend” price, because despite not being a local, you feel you have a relationship, and then suddenly finding out you are not, and maybe never were.

      I haven’t been to Colombia but I strongly suspect this is true in Central America where I honeymooned (not expensively – we didn’t stay at fancy resorts or anything like that, we backpacked). Being on our honeymoon, it just wasn’t worth it to try and find out.

      Happens in Taiwan, too, but there are usually only four brackets:

      1.) Relatives
      2.) Friends
      3.) Acquaintances
      4.) Everyone else (including unfamiliar locals and foreigners)

      And it is possible as a foreigner to make it to the “friend” bracket as you build relationships and networks. So in that sense it’s not so irritating, but I can assure you there are other irritating things about life in Taiwan as a foreigner.

      Link Reply
  • Jasmine September 10, 2011, 7:19 pm

    Eeesh, I find it really bizarre this has happened to you so many times in one pueblo… but maybe Villa de Leyva is getting so accustomed to tourists (unlike many places in Colombia where being a foreigner is a novelty) that they are trying to suck every last dime from visitors. I´d be interested to hear if this happens to you in other places too.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard September 10, 2011, 10:54 pm

      Hello Jasmine,

      Yes, that was odd. What really bothered me was that these weren’t the standard “rip off a tourist” sort of moves. In most of the cases, I knew the people by name, I would talk and hang out a little with them everyday. So when the acquaintanceships were flipped banal I found myself a touch twisted. If that cafe tried to charge me 500 pesos more for my drink the first time I ordered it there would be no way I wouldn’t have gotten all my change — that’s travel 101 stuff there haha. But it was the fact that I went in there, talked with the same person — who was normally friendly — day after day that I felt a real slap in the face that had nothing to do with money. The trying to make sense of these situations were what really wore me out.

      Maybe they just didn’t like me? Haha.

      Nope, that stuff only happened in Villa so far. But, then again, I have yet to stay somewhere as long and frequent the same business regularly as I did there.

      Link Reply
  • Jack September 10, 2011, 7:32 pm

    A little late, but watch out for that “five tier pricing structure” in Colombia, especially in Villa. I got ripped off/misled there three times in the space of three days, that I know of, but I don’t think it was due to indifference or anything. It’s more the “these people have the money to come here and play” and as such can afford to pay more mentality. Don’t let it get you down, Villa is like that but the rest of Colombia, as I experienced it, isn’t.

    Then again, you are fortunate enough to be able to travel the whole globe as a family, and enjoy yourselves. Why shouldn’t people like you and I pay a little more?

    Also, you say travel is about self mastery, compared to the traveler’s inability to somehow “master” another land or people… I have been living in the US for the majority of my life, and yet somehow I can’t seem to master this land, let alone another.

    Good luck in Colombia,

    Jack

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard September 10, 2011, 10:59 pm

      Hello Jack,

      Thanks man.

      “Then again, you are fortunate enough to be able to travel the whole globe as a family, and enjoy yourselves. Why shouldn’t people like you and I pay a little more?”

      Because we make less than 10 grand a year all together, and if we paid a little more all the time we would go broke haha. Yeah, 10 grand a year for a family is more than a good chunk of the world makes, but it is far less that most any other traveling family — and WAAAAAYYYYYY less than those tourist from Bogota haha.

      Thanks for the good wishes, man, and keep working on those USA folk.

      Link Reply
  • dad September 13, 2011, 4:16 am

    get as much change as you can ahead of time so you are not asking for your money back .frickin little ripoff counter peaons.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard September 13, 2011, 10:37 am

      Good tip, seriously, the more small money you carry the less you will be ripped off.

      Link Reply
  • Esi November 9, 2015, 8:15 am

    It sounds like you don’t see yourself as someone from the richest country in the world. That is what they see. Also, people in other countries may be more generous and expect more generosity than americans sometimes. You get extra because you give extra. To them, we are the nickel and dimers, we are the one counting pennies when we could give the whole dollar. It is nothing to us and they know that. We are NOT the same in their eyes; we are blessed with riches.

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