Culture shock step by step

Every expat lives through a kind of more or less intense culture shock, with some stages more delicate than others.

Moving to a new country calls for a period of adaptation. This is a period that, on average, lasts from six months to a year. In this time frame, practically every expat lives through a so-called culture shock in a more or less intense way. Clearly, not all live through it in the same way, and this largely depends on one’s character, personality, on the flexibility of the individual as well as on one’s predisposition to change, apart from the cultural remoteness between the country of origin and the country of adoption.

Regardless of the personal characteristics of the destination country, every expat (or a member of her family) goes through a series of stages, to a more or less marked extent.

  • Phase 1 – Honeymoon.

    Expats and their family see everything through rose-tinted glasses, they are enthusiastic about their new life, discovering a new world. They have a holiday attitude, bursting with enthusiasm and curiosity about what surrounds them. Just like in the first years of life as a couple, when they only see the good points in the other and everything that the partner has seems wonderful, including the faults.

  • Phase 2 – Reality check.

    At this stage, some or all the members of the family begin to feel homesick over what they have left behind: family, friends, traditions... They start to realize that they are not 100% compatible with the local culture in terms of behaviour patterns and ways of thinking. The social and/or professional rules of the country of adoption are still not entirely clear. All the details that the expat put up with without any problem at the honeymoon stage are not viewed as troublesome. Using the analogy again of life as a couple, the time has come for the so-called chemical stage to come to an end and to start to see the other exactly how he is: he is not Prince Charming, she is not the princess of his dreams, but rather a normal person with all his virtues and shortcomings.

  • Phase 3 – The hostile stage.

    The time comes when efforts to adapt start to take their toll. Tiredness creeps in, the negative details pile up. The effort of learning the language, bureaucratic difficulties, the search for reference doctors and professionals, understanding of banal elements such as the selective collection of domestic refuse. Everything becomes a burden. Everything calls for an effort of understanding and learning, tiredness builds up and a markedly negative spiral rears its head. This is the most intense phase of culture shock.

  • Phase 4 – Depression.

    Luckily, not everybody goes through this stage. In order to avoid falling into Stage 4, very careful attention should be paid to Stages 2 and 3, calling for help at the first signs. When the expat or one of her relatives really falls into a depressive state, there is no choice but to organize the return home before it is too late. Throughout her stay abroad, ideally, the expat should be supported to help her overcome difficulties with adaptation, which will inevitably arise. This stage, in fact, originates in family dramas and imbalances in the couple’s relationship, besides incurring considerable costs for the company that has invested in the expat and has to undertake her early repatriation.

  • Phase 5 – Negative stagnation.

    The expat stagnates in her negativity does not fall into a depression but neither does she maximize her experience. She will carry on comparing the destination country with her country of origin, criticizing everything that differs from her customs and considering that all that comes from her country of origin is better. Many expats live through this situation, suffering in silence throughout their stay abroad, knowing that they can’t ask the company for an early return because that would have a knock-on effect on her professional career. This does not exclude the fact that this psychological angst that they suffer can have also have a negative impact on their productivity, damaging the company apart from the person.

  • Phase 6 – Integration.

    This is the ideal stage. The expat and her family get the most out of the experience. They travel, get to know things, they discover, they learn, they have friends in the new country and they integrate in the culture of the destination country. When their stay draws to a close, they are happy to return home or to move on to another country. They really are world citizens.

  • Phase 7 – Assimilation.

    The expat becomes a passionate advocate of the country of adoption. Contrary to the expat at Stage 5, she becomes highly critical with her country of origin and considers that the culture of the destination country is better in practically all ways. She becomes more local than the locals and does not want to go back to her home country. So, once the expatriation contract ends, she will do all that she can to find a new job via the network of clients and/or suppliers, or she will search on her own account by setting up her own company. If she is forced to return home because she has not managed to create valid alternatives in the country of adoption, it is likely that she will fall into a depression on her return to her country of origin and then go through a considerable inverse culture shock.

The experience in a foreign country is a wonderful opportunity for growth, if living is good. It is clear that there are numerous hurdles to overcome as this is a truly hard challenge, with some stages being more delicate than others. Sadly, many people fail to manage getting all the benefits out of it because they bump into Stages 2 (reality check), 3 (the hostile stage) or 5 (negative stagnation), and that really is a sad state of affairs. With the support of an intercultural coach, especially in the first 6-12 months, many more expats could make the most of this adventure, with positive facets in terms of personal and professional growth. Contrary to popular belief, in fact, knowing how to ask for help is a true sign of strength.

Read the articles on Expats and the world of Intercultural Mind

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