Expat living: the stages of culture shock and how to avoid them

May 08, 2018
We use the term ‘culture shock’ so flippantly in the modern world, it is easy to forget it is a recognised psychological difficulty suffered by many who find themselves in an unfamiliar place. Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg defined culture shock as “an occupational disease of people who have been suddenly transplanted abroad. Like most ailments, it has its own symptoms, cause and cure”.
Like many psychological conditions culture shock usually involves several phases. Some people experience these phases in a linear way. For others, the order and timeframe can vary. Regardless of how and when you experience culture shock, remember, you can take steps to help alleviate its affect and it will pass.
This stage usually occurs at the beginning of expat living, where everything is new and exciting and you believe making the move to work abroad was the best decision you ever made. Chances are you are getting up to speed with your new role and spending days off exploring your new surroundings. This period can last days, weeks or even months.
If you have experience travelling to other countries on holiday, you may have experienced this to some degree. It usually begins with something small, like not being able to find somewhere, understand someone or figure out public transport but can escalate as you sort out the practicalities like enrolling your child in school or interacting with government agencies. During this period, you may feel homesick for the first time and you may have a longing to return to the comfort and familiarity of your own country. You may also experience expat depression during this time.
The best thing about the frustration stage is it rarely lasts long. In time you are likely to feel more comfortable with your new environment. This is the adjustment stage. It might start off small, like successfully ordering dinner at a restaurant in the local language. As the weeks and months go on, you might find yourself having an entire conversation with a client or someone at work in the local language. During this stage, you begin to adapt to your new culture, whether that means bringing snacks for a long queue or leaving early for punctual public transport. Generally, the things that used to annoy you, don’t bother you as much.
Finally, months or years after moving you may reach the acceptance stage where you feel comfortable in your new cultural environment. It doesn’t mean you agree with how things work in your new home, but you have found ways of adapting and realise you don’t need to understand everything in order to work and live there successfully.
Although culture shock is a process, it can be challenging at a time when you have a lot of other things to deal with. There are things you can do to avoid the feelings associated with culture shock.

Know the stages of culture shock: if you haven’t left for your assignment yet you are ahead of the curve. There are two ways in which this is thought to help. Firstly, it is thought prediction plays an important part in the reduction of stress and secondly being aware of a potential problem allows us to figure out solutions.     

Research your new culture: read as much as you can, ask questions in expat or related forums, not just the easy topics but the more detailed elements that will impact day to day life like:

  • How people greet each other?
  • How you should dress?
  • What is the usual meal schedule?
  • What time of day do people visit each other?
  • What physical contact is or is not acceptable in public?

Understanding information like this before you leave will help prevent unintentional mistakes when you get to your destination.

Be optimistic: tell yourself you are going to enjoy the experience and will take it one day at a time. This has shown to have a positive impact while you settle in to life abroad.

Accept your new culture: even if there are elements of it that you struggle with, try not to measure them against your own. Instead, accept it as different and do what you can to adapt.

Social support: studies have shown that having friends to lean on in times of stress can help you cope significantly better than those who don’t. As a relatively new expat, you may not have a social network in your new home. If this is the case, try to stay in touch with friends and family at home to talk about how you are feeling.

Expat living can be challenging at times but with preparation and optimism, it is often a career highlight.  If you do need extra support while settling in, make sure your international health insurance plan includes and expat assistance programme so you have access to professional help, should you need it.