Many people assume that plunging into life in a new country – either on an extended visit or a long-term overseas assignment – can be difficult, surprising and confrontational, otherwise known as culture shock. This sounds like there will be a wave of negative experiences and emotions crashing on the shores of existence for expatriates (natives of one country living in another), doesn’t it?
Let’s set the record straight on this:
For cultural trainers who prepare people for life and work abroad as part of a global marketing initiative, the idea of a shock isn’t the best way to explain the transition between cultures. Here’s why:
Calling the challenges of adjusting to a new and different environment a shock isn’t a concept which supports those who embark on the journey into foreign lands.
By definition, a shock is “a sudden upsetting or surprising event or experience, which typically leaves the upset person with a feeling of disturbed surprise resulting from an upsetting event.” So, describing as a shock the irritation some expats feel when exposed to unfamiliar behaviors and social norms is a bit of an overstatement.
I’ll admit: our team of trainers and coaches is guilty of having used the culture shock concept liberally in the past. And we have put an end to this practice.
Instead, we choose to refer to this global-marketing process as adaptation and the acclimatization period. Often this adjustment time will be packed with experiences that are unusual or not “normal” (compared to the behavioral preferences in one’s home culture). Sometimes these encounters with the unfamiliar or “the other” may be a bit challenging or irritating. But let’s be real: they aren’t shocking.
It’s also critical that the expat’s spouse receive the same adjustment and adaptation training as the assignee. Otherwise, marital tensions can easily explode, which often results in detrimental effects on the overseas work assignment. It is not uncommon for relationships to suffer or even to end abroad. And while children often adapt more easily, they too should absolutely receive some orientation to the new culture, its people and its norms – especially if they will be attending school in the new country.
Humans are meaning-making machines; our brains have the ability to give any experience a certain meaning. Humans can also choose: We can make an upsetting encounter mean something negative and label it as “shocking.” We can also decide to make it mean something entirely different. For example, we can choose to delay the meaning-making until we better understand the behavior which seems so unfamiliar or even unacceptable at first.
Sounds easier said than done, you say? Well, yes. However, robust cultural trainings and expat support programs create an awareness that the idea of “normal” behavior is an arbitrary concept. There are thousands, if not millions, of different sets of “normal” around the world. It’s up to us to decide whether the new “normal” is weird, or simply different.
During their adaptation period, expats go through some exciting and inspiring as well as some demotivating and unpleasant phases. To label those ups and downs as shocking is missing the point –
even though the emotional roller coaster ride can sometimes be a bit wilder than that in the home culture.
Let’s look at the peaks and valleys, and the trips in between, that both partners and children can experience:
First, there is the honeymoon period, which happens during the beginning of a foreign assignment. It’s often perceived as overwhelmingly positive: expats and their families become infatuated with their new surroundings, the language, the people and the food.
Every honeymoon ends. That’s when an initial wave of frustration crashes down upon foreign assignees – and the family. Navigating daily life in a foreign language is draining. Establishing routines at the new location takes time. Everyday tasks require conscious decision making; life doesn’t happen on autopilot. Small events such as losing keys, missing the bus or being unable to easily order food in a restaurant can trigger frustration.
As expats and families begin to establish new routines abroad, they develop feelings of accomplishment. They try out new things, explore new places, rediscover their curiosity for the host location. Thus, expats feel they’ve adapted well. For example, they learn how the transport system works, and they no longer need a GPS to navigate around the area.
Many transferees experience another frustration period which can be even more taxing than the first one. This often happens around six to nine months into the assignment. And it comes as a huge surprise to those who go through it.
At this point expats and their families assume their adjustment is complete, with all the initial struggles behind them. However, it is typically at this juncture that the deeper differences between home culture and host-country culture become apparent.
Up to this point, they only had to handle the various do’s & don’ts of the new environment. Now the underlying whys of unfamiliar behaviors begin to surface. The beliefs and value systems in the host culture become clearer and sometimes this leads to expats’ feelings of disappointment, mental isolation, stress, and even anger. “Why am I here?” or “Why did you accept this position?” are questions that can come up.
In an ideal world, this would be the best time to take a short vacation. Their instincts will tell expats to go back to their home country to visit friends and family. Our recommendation is to go anywhere but home. This would only amplify the issue.
Instead, we advise transferees and their families to travel to a new location — one where yet another language is spoken and where climate, infrastructure, topography, and culture are different from home and from the host location. This simple trick will provide another perspective. And when expats return from that trip to enter their expat house, in their expat country, in their expat city, it will feel to them more like coming home.
Let me invite you to engage your meaning-making brains in order to categorize new and unfamiliar behaviors as exactly that – unfamiliar. The experiences you make in a culture that’s new to you may have not registered with your personal value system – yet.
Gradually, you will learn to decipher the different behaviors. Some of them you will find acceptable; others may never become yours. And almost none of them will ever be shocking.
About the Author
Christian Hoferle operates a cultural consulting and training firm, The Culture Mastery, LLC (http://theculturemastery.com).
Christian is a certified cross-cultural consultant, a Cultural Detective Facilitator, and NLP Master as well as a certified Coach, Mentor and Mastermind Facilitator. German by birth, American by choice, and Bavarian at heart, Christian is a fan of building bridges – across people and cultures – and is not enthusiastic about walls.
Before moving to the U.S. in 2004, Christian worked in various leadership functions for several international media companies. Since 2008 he has served many multinational firms as a cross-cultural business consultant training many hundreds of people for postings in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Some of his many clients include Johnson & Johnson, Siemens, Volkswagen, Alcoa and Bridgestone.
Christian is the host of The Culture Guy podcast, which addresses the needs and interests of global professionals crossing cultures. He has served with the German-American Chamber of Commerce and as Board President for the non-profit Mosaic.
You may reach him at: GetStarted@TheCultureMastery.com