Adapting to a New Culture

Unless you are very accustomed with the country or have close friends / relatives already living there to guide you, in most cases an unfamiliar culture will be disorientating. Different social etiquettes and social norms in addition to language barriers can present problems.

Furthermore, social etiquette can often be very subtle and even body language can be interpreted differently in another culture. Things you may do subconsciously in your home culture may be construed in a different manner in another country. If you don’t know a resident to pass on local knowledge, there is help available on the internet. It is worth researching before you leave.

There are numerous websites dedicated to culture issues. For example, the website http://www.culturosity.com features free articles such as ‘Strategies for Overcoming Language Barriers’, ‘Tips for Effective Cross-Cultural Communication’ and ‘Cultural Blunders’. There is also a learning centre and guides available to download. If you are posted on an overseas assignment for your company, the book by Dutch author Geert Hofstede ‘Cultural Dimensions for International Business’ may be useful for managing staff and dealing with colleagues.

Honeymoon phase

During the “Honeymoon Phase”, newly arrived expatriates are excited about their new surroundings and are eager to explore the new country. They are very positive about their relocation and the newness of the country.

Negotiation phase

After a few weeks in a foreign country, expatriates usually experience homesickness. Simple day-to-day tasks, such as taking transportation, shopping or attending school meetings, can become a real challenge in a different environment. This is sometimes exacerbated by language barriers. These are challenges that locals may not be able to understand, and they may be seen by expatriates as being insensitive or unsympathetic people.

Stereotype

Stereotypes are mostly created during the negotiation phase of an expatriation. Stereotyping may help the ego of someone suffering from severe culture shock, but it will not lead to adaptation to the new country.

Attitude – a factor to success

Attitude is a very important factor to success or failure. Frustration leads to aggressiveness and roughness towards others. Locals, in turn, behave the same way or ignore the expatriate, further increasing the stereotypes and frustration. Expatriates who overcome this step are usually successful in their expatriation, those who don’t, just leave the host country earlier than expected.

Three types of reaction

  • Rejecters: Some expatriates finds adapting to a new country and it’s culture to be particularly difficult. They tend to isolate themselves from the host country that they perceive as hostile, and believe that returning home is the only way for them to be in harmony with their environment again.
  • Adopters: Some expatriates embrace their host culture and country, whilst losing their original identity. They usually choose to stay in the host country forever.
  • Cosmopolitans: They see their host country and culture positively, and manage to adapt whilst keeping their original identity. They create their own blend and usually have no problem returning to their home country or relocating elsewhere.

Adjustment phase

Six to 12 months after arriving in the host country, expatriates usually begin to grow accustomed to their new home and know what to expect from their surroundings. Daily activities become routine and the customs of the host country are accepted as another way of living.

At this stage expatriates are able to communicate more freely with locals. The previously hostile country has now become a place from which expatriates can learn and enrich their lives. Once expatriates have reached this stage, the longer they remain in the host country, the more unique their experience will be.

Reverse culture shock

Reverse Culture Shock occurs when expatriates return to their home country after a long period away. As expatriates had to previously adjust to a new environment, returning home presents a similar challenge. Being prepared for the return home goes a long way towards helping former expatriates reintegrate into their home country.

Countering Culture shock

Certain steps can be taken to help avoid the worst aspects of Culture Shock. A little research will help you understand what to expect in the new country and assist you in settling down.

Learn the language

Learning the national language(s) spoken in your adopted country will help you communicate, and reduce the effects of culture shock and misunderstanding. Being able to communicate with the locals will minimise the stress of your move.

Prepare for cultural differences

The more you know about the culture of your host country, the more prepared you will be for a different way of life, and the easier it will be for you to cope with new ideas and experiences. Misunderstandings due to cultural differences are a reality but can be reduced through sensitivity and careful communication.

Be open-minded

Be open to accepting cultural differences and alternative ways of doing things. The unfamiliar may be frightening at first but in time you will find yourself taking these once-unfamiliar situations for granted.

Be patient

Adapting to a new culture and country takes time. Be patient with yourself and allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them as you go along.

Take time off

It’s natural to long for things to be the way they were in your own country. Taking a break from all that is unfamiliar helps. When adapting seems difficult, take part in a familiar activity (read a book, watch a movie or listen to music in your home language). You will find that this will energise you and help you tackle any challenges that you are facing.

Following the suggestions should help you acclimatise to your new host country and discover a whole new world of cultural meanings and knowledge. Expatriation is a challenging experience that can ultimately be rewarding, both personally and professionally.


**Picture by Ricardo Esquivel at pexels  / by John Mason International Movers & Ag Movers