There was multiple times where I felt annoyed, annoying, or stupid after moving abroad. At times, it was easier to deal with those emotions, other times it was not.
There was one thing that I definitely learned from experiencing those emotions. I learned what truly matters to me. I learned what my values are. Some of it I liked, some of it I didn’t, but that was who I was at the time. It was a great starting point to adapting and growing further as a person.
Emotions are there for a reason
Emotions are hard to define, hard to measure. But they are there, we experience them, we experience the impact they are having on us and our behaviours every day.
They can be defined as a passing mental state, triggered by a certain stimulus (that we may be more or less conscious of), causing a certain behavioural and neuronal reaction. There is even a particular branch of research on emotions, which focuses on the functionality of emotional responses. It shows us that we feel various emotions for a reason.
One of the functions of emotions is to understand yourself better and help decide what to do next. Anger for example can be a sign of strong disagreement or dissatisfaction with something (a betrayal, difference in opinions, unjust behaviours). If we are getting angry over something, it might be that we cared about one thing or view very deeply – otherwise it wouldn’t trigger such a strong reaction. This emotion, like all others, is visible in the physical reactions of the body too – increased blood flow, focus on this one trigger, readiness to react.
Fear is something that informs us about a certain danger and prepares us for a quick reaction too – the types of stress reactions are often referred to as freeze, fight or flight. Sadness shows us that we deeply cared about something or were attached to it – so if we lose it, we have to take some time to come to terms with this loss.
More and more research is also appearing on the functional advantages of the positive emotions too, like awe and amusement which can improve the intake of information, and encourage playfulness. Emotions classified as more positive also elicit certain responses in our body, which in the long term are beneficial for our health, like for example slowing down of the heart rate or releasing hormones like serotonin or oxytocin to our system.
Emotions also help us function in the society. Showing certain emotions can help us regulate our relationships and set certain boundaries of what we find acceptable or not. Showing anger lets other people know that they have crossed the line, it can be an expression of dissatisfaction and disagreement. Our sadness can for example show other people that they hurt us, said or did something that we didn’t like. It also is something that can inform the outside world that you need support and can elicit such caring response in others (otherwise, how would they know you need help without you explicitly asking for it?).
This is where the cross-cultural knowledge comes in handy. In various societies, different behaviours may be perceived as acceptable, good, appropriate or professional.
As Cultural Intelligence Center points out: Giggles may mean laughter in one culture and embarrassment in another. Some individuals have been socialized to express anger by yelling while others simmer in silence. Public affirmations may be encouraging in one context and humiliating in another.
That is why emotional intelligence does not by default equal cultural intelligence.
How monitoring your emotions may help you understand your values?
The more you understand your emotions and the underlying beliefs, the more you will understand the deeper values that guide your behaviour. If it turns out that some of those thoughts or behaviours don’t help you adapt and succeed in the new cultural environment, you can then start working to change some of them to be more effective.
If you experience the feelings of anger in a discussion with your colleague about some current issues, this might be a sign for you that you deeply value your opinion and are strongly attached to it. Then you can go deeper to understand what needs and values is this opinion related to. And then you can bring in the cultural context to see whether there might be something cultural to it or not. If yes, it will be important information for you to further improve your cross-cultural skills!
So either way, you have to start with yourself. Otherwise, you will continue being frustrated and judgmental, but you will not know where it’s coming from and what to target in order to become more successful.
I’d like to invite you to a 7-day exercise. Start today!
You probably have a phone next to you most of the times and if not, you probably have some notebook. Make sure that you always have access to something that will allow you to write your thoughts down throughout the next week.
Write down the situations in which you have felt particularly good or particularly uncomfortable, and the details related to it. Remember that there is no limit as to how many of those situations you will experience in one day – it will totally depend on you!
Describe the situation:
Time of day: eg. Morning/Afternoon/Evening
Who was involved:
Feelings experienced during this situation:
Thoughts that accompanied those emotions at the time:
After a couple of days of doing this exercise, you should hopefully become more alert to any strong emotions, positive or negative, that appear in your body. You will also have a log of all stronger emotions that you felt over the past couple of days and the thoughts that accompanied them.
How can you use this log further?
This is not the end of the journey. This is just the beginning. If you get into the habit of stopping and acknowledging your emotions, you will start seeing some patterns as to what makes you annoyed, which of your behaviours seem to make other people uncomfortable and which of the situations you feel most comfortable in. You should start noticing whether certain reactions or feelings are attached to a similar trigger or not, whether they show in you only in certain vulnerable times or with certain type of people or behaviours.
Thanks to this knowledge, the next step for you may be to think through what your core values are, what are the things that are most important to you at the moment.
For that, there is a useful exercise you can download when you sign up to the Project Abroad newsletter. The newsletter provides you with the updates on the latest blog articles and is also a space where I’m sharing more thoughts and advice on living and working cross-culturally. Come and join me! 🙂