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Home » Africa, Asia, Europe, Expat Life, Middle East, Relocations, Rest of the World, Russia - CIS

What is Culture Shock? How Expats Learn to Cope with Cultural Differences

A foreign country may prove uncomfortable at the beginning, until one learns more about the new culture, people and social rules

By Relocation Expert
May 4, 2011

Culture Shock plugOne of the most stressful aspects of moving to another country is facing a completely new culture. Regardless of how prepared you might be, the change of culture and environment is something that affects everyone. The experience of culture shock, especially for first-time expats, is quite normal.

Culture shock’ also includes the stress of being separated from the important people in life –  family, friends and colleagues that we would normally talk to at times of uncertainty. Coping with culture shock is one of the more challenging aspects of moving overseas. Some people don’t talk about it at all because they feel they should adapt instead of feeling uncertainty or anxiety.

The truth is that every traveler feels this way to a certain extent, but for first timers, it is particularly acute. It gets pretty confusing when we have to cope with a new language, which we may not be able to speak; new foods with unfamiliar flavors and textures or from unfamiliar sources. The relative welcome or exclusion by local residents, new and different social rules, laws and taboos all contribute to this feeling. Other practical issues can also cause stress such as temperature, weather and climate, or the  relative reliability of services such as electricity, water, telephone, internet connection, garbage pick-up and countless other small issues. Culture shock can be severe, especially if you move from a completely different cultural background, for example from Switzerland to Saudi Arabia.

The good news is that everyone adapts after a while. It can be hard at times, but it is truly such a valuable life experience that no one would ever regret going through. It gives us the opportunity to learn about others and ourselves, to accept and appreciate differences. Being able to integrate and participate instead of just observe is a precious life skill. Here are the five most common phases of adjustment to a new culture and environment:

Phase 1 – Honeymoon
This phase usually lasts two to six weeks. During this period, expatriates are usually excited to be in the new country and are fascinated by its sights. Those who relocate to emerging countries will experience a relative increase in status and standard of living. In the beginning, everything is so new and exiting. For these reasons, or perhaps some other reasons, freshly relocated assignees often feel very good in a situation of the first brief period of expatriation.

Phase 2 – Culture Shock
After a month or so, the initial phase ends and expats usually face the barriers in performance of their jobs or in everyday life. They may even realize that methods they used in their careers are either useless or counter-productive in their different cultural environment. It can become even worse if they have brought their families with them and realize that their loved ones are stressed and confused by the new circumstances. Due to such difficulties, expats may feel culture shock symptoms such as confusion, anger and frustration. This phase usually lasts six to eight months.

Phase 3 – Gradual Adjustment
In this phase, expats begin to adjust to their new situation and slowly regain their self confidence. Through relationships they build with other expats and locals, they begin to understand the new environment better and start to integrate into society. This phase can last one to two years, during which they begin to appreciate and understand local habits, language, lifestyle and business practice. This is the phase in which foreigners adapt to local culture, with much less anxiety.

Phase 4 – Basic Competence
It could take another year or two for expats to gain basic competence in another country’s business practices. This period could be even longer in the emerging countries where business rules are not clearly set and depend greatly on personal relationships. Still, as relationships build up, it becomes easier for an expat to develop functional proficiency in a foreign environment.

Phase 5 – Mastery
It takes a total of five to seven years (according to some studies) for an expatriate to fully develop appreciation and understanding of the host country and its culture. Those on high managerial positions need firm relationships with people in positions of influence within their own organizations and outside of it. It may be the only way to achieve sustainable progress. But it takes time and patience as, before getting close to people, we need to accept and appreciate their culture, habits and language.

Culture shock is normal, and the feeling of confusion, disappointment and stress will dissipate. What each expat can do to make the transition easier is to prepare by reading about the host county, its people, rules, habits, taboos and business practices.


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