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Coping with Culture shock when you go abroad

Coping with Culture shock when you go abroad
By: Elisa Gomez

While visiting a country as a tourist may be easy and pleasant, discovering a new world surrounding us, less true is the experience of living and working in another country on a long-term basis ! When we go abroad, no matter how far it is from our country, the cultural practices and codes are going to be different. Sometimes, this phenomenon can also happen in different regions of the same country.

We may feel lost, misunderstood and willing to jump right away on the next plane back home.

Consciously or not, each of us carries within ourselves our own background, mindset and outlook on the world when travelling. These patterns are mainly influenced by our education and environment, through the educational system for instance. Two persons coming from the same country are indeed sharing some common views on the world, apart from their personal beliefs.

Going to live abroad is a real challenge, because we will interact with people that do not share the same cultural codes, history and may have a different outlook on things. This is why in spite of all the advantages of going abroad, we may experience a cultural shock and need a period of adaptation.

But first, what is culture about ? In philosophy, culture means what is different from nature. It then falls under what is passed from humans to others through experience. It draws a line between what is innate and acquired, nature and nurture. Culture involves a set of commonalities such as ideas, social behaviour, customs and beliefs. It deals with the society and the lifestyle, including historical patterns as well as values.

When cultures collide

Culture shock is a phenomenon every expatriate may experience, applying to newbies as well as for veterans in expatriating assignments. Experimenting culture shock goes beyond the feelings of unfamiliarity with social norms, the food, the language and the discomfort of the beginning. It appears when we are exposed to an alien environment and culture. It consists in a mix of feelings like anxiety, confusion, uncertainty and some positive feelings unhinging our emotional stability. Expats agree on the fact that Culture shock happens in waves, emotional upheavals characterize this process. While the phenomenon is common to everybody, its intensity varies from one person to another, depending on a lot of factors. While some people achieve to integrate, some others cannot cope with it and go back home before the end of their assignment. On the way of achieving integration, the will to work through it is the first step to make. 

The Culture shock process : 4 stages

Culture shock is a process, unfolding in stages. Traditionally, 4 steps are recognised. If we can draw a general list of them, their order and intensity depend on everyone of us.

The first one is called the honeymoon phase, the trip is an exiting adventure where we are passing from one discovery straight to another. The food, the language, the weather, the lifestyle are some significant changes that affect expats on the first stage, combined with meeting new people and making some friends.

The honeymoon opens the way to the second stage, less pleasant, the frustration one. Usually it appears to be the most difficult stage: the misunderstandings become to be burdensome and hard. The accumulation of frustrations may lead to an emotional breakdown and small things (losing a key, someone not speaking English) can turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. During this stage, we might experience some homesickness, willing to go back home where everything is familiar and comfortable. A feeling of loneliness and confusion is also quite frequent, emphasised for people that didn’t manage to build new friendships.

Hopefully, this stage won’t last forever. It gives way to the adjustment stage, where the language is more understandable, as well as the culture and the customs. Basically, we get used to the lifestyle, we learn the tips and create essential links with other people.

Finally, after weeks or months wrestling in another environment with constant upheavals, we start to feel at ease, getting to know the way the country works. It does not mean that we understand everything, but the emotional rollercoaster should smooth out. This final stage is called the acceptance stage, and lead to a successful integration.

How to deal with cultural shock

As everyone is different and experiences it in a different way, there is no miracle solution to a successful expatriation. However, you can get prepared for it. First, it will be more difficult if the culture is extremely different than the one you come from. One of the recommendations is to be prepared by learning in advance, ideally before coming, about the culture, the language, the religion, customs and traditions. Once there, if you are in the frustration phase, it is also recommended to wait a bit and try to see the situation in relative terms. Indeed, during an emotional high phase you might not be able to have a clear knowledge of what is happening. In order to feel less alone, try to make contacts and develop relationships with people there. Join some expats groups, you can share your experience with them as they are likely to feel the same way as you and experience a cultural shock as well !

Remember that culture shock is perfectly normal, it happens because you are moving from one familiar environment to another unfamiliar one. The interaction with other cultures is essential to understand the world in which we are living, getting more self-confident, open-minded and don’t think that our own cultural values are the reality standards.