How to best overcome potential “culture shock” as an expatriate
Expatriates and their family settling in a fo
reign country sometimes experience a “culture shock” and can go through a "depressed" phase after a few months of expatriation. The good news is that this state of mind is well known and normal in the process of intercultural adaptation and is in fact a transitional experience that does not last. Knowing the different phases of expatriation and the emotional states that you might go through can help you overcome this phase and more serenely integrate in the new country.
Four main phases will shape your expatriate experience of intercultural adjustment[i]. Each family member goes through them at a different pace and may face them differently.
1 - Initially, it is common to experience a pleasant phase called "honeymoon". Everything is new and interesting; the unknown and the difference are perceived as fascinating and exciting. You are too busy settling in and discovering your new surroundings to feel homesick and think about what you miss from before. In general, you feel full of enthusiasm and energy.
Therefore, it’s a good time to start meeting other international people from the local expat community who can share their experience with you and show you around. Ideally, one should try to start thinking like a resident and not a tourist anymore, for example by looking for opportunities to continue with hobbies or find new stimulating activities locally. The best way to start integrating to the new culture consists undoubtably in taking courses in the local language, preferably in face-to-face (vs. virtual online) group classes, so to meet new people. The good memories of your first impressions, often shared with the family, and the network of local friends you start developing at this early stage of your expatriation can be very useful later.
2 - But after a few weeks for some, a few months for others, a certain "rejection" of the host country's culture would normally occur, this is the so called “culture shock”, which can take the appearance of a crisis or a feeling of “homesickness”. Now, the perception changes: the cultural differences which were fascinating before seem annoying and frustrating. You might feel the linguistic barriers as tiring and stressful. This can be accompanied by feelings of inadequacy and isolation, anxiety or even hostility towards the host country and its people, as well as significant fatiguability, loss of confidence and doubts about the project, which can lead, in acute situations, to a premature return home.
However, it’s precisely the fact of being aware of these potential difficulties that will allow somebody to enter the acceptance phase and adjust “naturally” to the host country. Although everyone’s experience is different, the “culture shock” generally lasts only a few weeks and will end soon. Being patient, observing how others behave, reminding yourself you are not alone, talking about it, as well as sharing your feelings with your entourage and other expatriates who could already overcome this stage will help acclimatize and adjust.
3 – The third phase is precisely the adjustment phase. By recognizing the difficulties, you accept your new life and the many changes it implies. It’s a learning process, resulting in personal development: the adaptation to the host country is done gradually, at the same time as the learning of cultural codes. Compromises will be made by integrating the values of both cultures.
Developing new projects, going out, deepening friendships will make you feel more and more comfortable over time.
4 – The "maturity" you have acquired in the previous stage will lead you to the “stability” or “integration” phase. You can now appreciate your new way of life and its differences in order to function effectively in your host country. You can begin to enjoy it fully and be part of it. The strange gradually becomes ordinary and you feel at home.
To summarize, even if expats generally go through a difficult period at some point during settlement, time, patience, and awareness will help them transform this experience into a great and exciting adventure. Contacting a specialized relocation company like Cocooning Swiss can also help expatriates ease this transition, including guiding them in understanding cultural differences and actively supporting them in the integration process.
Inspiration: J.S. Black and M.E. Mendenhall (1991) have theorized the U-shaped curve depicting a succession of four stages that compares the expatriate's degree of adaptation to the time spent in the host country.