I work with many people who choose to go abroad, usually for better career prospects, for the sense of adventure, for self-development, to make use of the opportunity…
Some of them may already have an idea that culture shock is a ‘thing’ during an international transition. This usually also comes with some preconceptions of how long it should last or how quickly they should adapt to the new culture and country.
If you also have some preconceptions of what cultural adaptation curve looks like or how long it lasts – read on! Today is all about helping you identify where you are in the process and giving you some tips on what you can do at each stage.
What is culture shock?
Culture shock is one of the stages of cultural adaptation. That in itself was a great relief for me. It is a stage. It’s a phase and it will pass. So the key for me when I hit that was to go through it in a way that leads to positive adaptation, and continue my adventure abroad.
This stage in particular may be challenging for expats, because of its emotional nature. Many emotions coming at once, we may snap really easily, form judgments we didn’t realise we had, and experience an emotional overwhelm which we didn’t know before or weren’t ready for.
Remember though that you can always ask for help. And even the sole fact that you are reading this article makes me think that you want to take steps to better your current expat reality, so well done!
How can you recognise which stage of the cultural adaptation you are in?
The classic theories indicate four main stages of cultural adaptation process – Honeymoon, Culture Shock, Adjustment and Adaptation. Sometimes the fifth one could be applicable as well if you choose to go back to your home country – the Reverse Culture Shock.
People often ask me about the timeline for going through this process. And it’s a million dollar question, for which there is no clear answer 🙂 A lot depends on your circumstances, resilience you’ve had before coming, the expectations and goals you had…
This is also why the expat coaching is such a great personalised service – the coach could meet you at any of the stages (even before the move date!) and help you move through the specific challenges and mindset blocks you’re dealing with.
In the honeymoon phase, you’d notice that you are speaking about the new country and culture almost exclusively in superlatives, noticing the things that are better here than they were in the country you came from. You are eager to discover everything about the country, try local foods, getting to know people, seeing new places. Everything seems so great and so much better than it was. You’re basically looking at this new country through the eyes of a curious tourist.
Some people stay in that phase for a long time. Maybe they don’t even ever experience the shock phase so strongly. But others move on to the shock phase and struggle.
However, the fact that you are generally enjoying the new country and culture does not have to mean that you can’t start missing home or have some other challenges related to life abroad. You can feel like you have made the right move, but at the same time face other difficult choices or situations – it’s not like it can only be one or the other!
When you get to the culture shock phase, you are likely to start noticing internal values conflicts, mixed feelings and strong emotions. You might start noticing that people actually do some things differently here and you may not be as ok about it as you thought you were before.
Now that you have to live here for longer, it just seems like the things, which could have been an interesting observation and a holiday story for someone who has just come here to visit, are draining your energy.
You may also be calling many things out as weird, annoying, stupid or not normal. Even though they are just different from what you’ve known before. This might also mean that you start idealising your home country and just remembering only the good stuff – kind of the opposite of the honeymoon phase.
It may feel like you want to go home and that moving abroad was a mistake. Perhaps you also got your first feedback at your new work, which was not as great as you wanted it to be. Working abroad also seems harder than you thought it would be, as your old strategies and methods don’t seem to have the same positive effect on the local teams. At work, maybe at the beginning people were cutting you some slack and being more understanding because you were new and everything, but now it seems to be a message of ‘time to deliver results’.
Again, there isn’t a timeline really for how long this could last, for some people it takes 6 months, for others 2 years. It can be especially challenging if you’re a fan of social media and are seeing all these positive expats, setting up their blogs, travelling and what not, showing only the good bits of their reality. It creates and unnecessary expectation that this is how it should be.
The model shows that this adaptation process as a U-curve, but in reality you may be jumping back and forth on that curve as you learn and experience more and more in the new country! You may have reached the adaptation stage for the language aspect, but perhaps there are certain behaviours that you find hard to get used and adapted to. And that’s ok. Allow yourself for discoveries in your own time.
At that point, you may have done some work around managing your emotions, you probably have done some reading about the new culture, perhaps started working with a coach as well to help you manage the cultural differences and the related emotional baggage of the international transition.
In the adjustment stage, you accept that people here may have different ways of doing things, that there are certain trends that are not the same as where you come from.
You may not agree with these ways, or may not have found strategies yet to adapt, but you stopped contradicting the facts and judging these other behaviours. You start feeling the need to adapt and find ways to feel more comfortable in this new environment.
You also start having a good idea of the things you like and don’t like in that new culture, you’re perhaps almost haggling with yourself noticing the cons, but also the pros of living here. That’s why it’s sometimes also called the negotiation phase.
After all the struggles, dealing with your emotions, getting to know yourself, and after all the conscious efforts to adjust your behaviours to what you notice around you – you finally start doing it without much difficulty.
You sometimes even stop noticing that you’re doing some of the things that a couple of months ago seemed very weird to you. Or that you adjusted your behaviour to meet the local requirements or standards in a way that feels true to you but is not a direct copy of what other people would be doing.
By now you started to understand the underlying reasons for people doing it and made efforts to adapt.
You also know you’ve reached this stage if after leaving the country you start missing things from there – be it foods, ways of doing things etc.
What can you do once you identify the cultural adaptation stage?
Here are some practical tips on the actions you can take at each of the stages to help you manage the transition process.
The question I get asked often is ‘How can I make the honeymoon stage last longer?’ Well, in all truth, this would probably need to start even before you arrive to the new country!
But there are things you can do to try and get the most out of that beautiful stage and build the foundation for your experience in the new country. Here are some ideas:
- Research the logistical and bureaucratic aspects of the move – the “real-life” can hit us hard right when we move, so as much as you can: research in advance so that you have a clear path forwards and are not thrown off by these things. What banks accept new arrivals to set up account with them? What are the to-dos you will need to take care of when arriving (social security numbers, medical insurance, finding accommodation, setting up the kids at school, buying furniture for the new flat etc.)? What are the main shops you love to shop at now and what are their equivalents in the new country?
- Schedule in some time for settling in – as much as possible, if you don’t have to start working straight away, schedule in at least a week but ideally more, to settle in, explore the neighbourhoods, maybe do some touristy stuff too.
- Make a conscious effort to go out, see and try things – it’s likely what you will want to do in either case, but if the logistical challenges are pushing you over to the shock phase too quickly, you may use this as an extra boost to really get to enjoy what the new city or country have to offer.
- Journal – it’s a great way to keep the memories alive and go back to them when things get tougher. It doesn’t need to be a full-on three page memoir every day. Even if it’s a short gratitude or positive psychology practice that will do! You can write down three good things that happened each day, or three things you are grateful for today. Looking after your mind during such international transition is super important.
- Enjoy 🙂 If you’ve identified that this is where you are now – honestly the best thing you can do is to enjoy this time and get to know the place as much as you can. There is no point about worrying too much in advance or waiting for the clouds to come. They may not. And if they will – you know how to identify that stage now and will be able to take action on it when the time comes.
Most common question here from people is ‘How can I avoid the culture shock?’. Well, although it’s a tempting possibility, avoiding the culture shock or any negative emotions related to international transitions is probably not the best strategy.
As with anything in life, really! Moving abroad is just one type of a life transition, but in reality we face so many of them throughout our lives – changing schools, moving cities, going to university, starting a new job, going into a serious relationship, becoming parents…
Suppressing emotions related to such transitions does more harm than good – one characteristic of emotions is that they will come to light sooner or later. With negative ones, if they are not acknowledged and expressed, this often means them coming out when you least expect them.
So… what are the things you can do at this stage to help yourself move through the transition?
- Acknowledge and accept your feelings – the ones about moving abroad, but also about the various things and behaviours and working practices that you found weird, stupid or annoying. These emotions and judgments can actually be a great source of information for you about what you value, what’s important and what matters to you at the moment. This focus on the present moment and grounding is necessary to move forward.
- Increase self-awareness – one of the ways to deal with these overwhelming emotions can also be to understand where they come from. That awareness in itself is the first step to any adaptation and change. If you don’t know your starting point, how would you know where to even start adapting? You can do this through mindfulness practice, journaling, getting to know your cultural values preferences or talking with a coach. Learning about your own cultural background and also the one you found yourself in can be very helpful in managing various work challenges abroad.
- Connect with others – it can be very important here to find the balance between staying in touch with the loved ones back home and finding new local people to hang out with. The new people can be especially important, because they would understand the context you’re in right now. Connecting with other relatively new expats can be almost cathartic at this point, which could give you a safe space to express your concerns and fears. Where possible, try to also connect with the locals to give yourself a chance to immerse in the culture a bit more and quicker.
- Clarify your goals and aspirations – if you have done this before you moved abroad, then just refer back to your goals and see if they still apply. If you haven’t, then take some time to clear your mind and create short-term goals and perhaps also a longer-term vision for yourself in this new country. This will help put you in a solution-oriented mindset, focus you on the future and what you can do to better your situation.
At this stage, you are ready to take some action to adapt your behaviours and find a way forward. Most common question here is ‘What can I do to adapt?’.
- Identify the gaps that need bridging – get clear on where you are and what the expectation is, as well as how crucial it is for you to adapt certain behaviour or mindset. For example, if speaking up in meetings is not something that is your natural style, but seems to be crucial to your career progression in the new culture, it will probably find its place on your ‘key goals’ list.
- Determine whether they are a competence or authenticity challenge – most often, when we say that ‘we just can’t do this’, it’s a matter of we’re either not able to and actually don’t know why or it does not feel right. You will need different strategies to deal with each of them.
- Create a strategy for bridging these gaps – strategy is something that allows you to turn the goals into some actionable baby steps which seem more within reach. This could be creating a strategy for managing the team better, finding a common language with new colleagues at work, or coming up with ideas on where to meet new potential friends. Being intentional about these things helps.
Once you reach that stage, you likely feel ‘at home’ in your new place, comfortable, confident in how things are done, but also in how you can make the best of this place. After a while in this place, you may start asking the question ‘Now what??’. So here are a few ideas on how to keep the spark going
- Continue developing your cultural competence – now that you’ve been through the culture shock yourself and managed to adjust your behaviours and mindset, you can really use this experience to develop your cultural competence beyond just this one culture you’re now living in. You can expand, to learn more about various leadership and communication practices around the world. Who knows, maybe this will provide you with the next fascinating step on your international journey?
- Enrich the experience of other people – perhaps you have a new colleague at work who has just moved to this country, or maybe you would attend international meetups with new arrivals who need support and connection, just as you needed it when you hit the shock stage. You can now share your experience with others and help them move through the tougher times too.