Culture Shock Part 1

Culture Shock Part 1

6th Sep 2016

If you are considering a move abroad, or ever have made a move to a foreign country, then chances are you will have heard of culture shock. This is a four stage phenomenon that is defined as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life or set of attitudes”.


The first thing to accept is that, as an expat, there is a very high chance you will experience culture shock. It doesn’t matter where you are from, nor where you are moving to as it is highly likely you will start to notice tiny differences between life in your country and life abroad.


Psychologists studying the culture shock experienced by expats have identified the 4 stages experienced by those dealing with the condition. These 4 stages may not be experienced by everyone, and may be experienced in a different order by different individuals, but the effects of them are roughly the same.


Culture Shock - the 4 Stages


Stage 1 - The Honeymoon Phase


The first stage is one that most of us will have already experienced either when accepting a job or simply going on a family holiday abroad - the honeymoon phase.


It is normally experienced in the weeks leading up to your flight abroad, and then during the early period in your new country. It is where all the differences between your homeland and new home country are exciting and fascinating. You embrace the change and continue to feel like an excited tourist discovering new sights, tastes and experiences.


During this phase it is normal to take little notice of the small, everyday quirks that exist within your new country. Often expats are blinded by the blissful feeling that a new opportunity can bring with it, and are just delighted to finally be in a country where they had dreamed of working.


Unfortunately for many people this doesn’t last, and quickly they can find themselves moving into stage 2.


Stage 2 - The Irritation and Crisis Stage


Gradually many expats find themselves sliding into the irritation and crisis stage, a vastly different feeling to that of the Honeymoon. A change in routine, working environment and even surroundings can disorientate people and lead to small things frustrating them.


Most commonly this starts with the language barrier. Unless you are fluent in the native tongue of your new country the first thing that makes many people take notice of their culture shock is the language barrier. No amount of courses and classes can prepare you fully for living with people who have spoken a certain language - often with a local dialect or accent - since they were born.


The language barrier can make everyday tasks such as hailing a taxi, ordering food and shopping in a supermarket extremely frustrating for expats.


As well as this, and in the cases of people who have moved to a country where they are fluent in the language, other seemingly insignificant things such as a lack of ‘comfort food’ from home, a lack of television and radio stations you used to enjoy and even the weather can further add to this frustration.


During this stage people can often start to feel lonely and isolated and often question why they made the move in the first place. It’s a stage that many expats have described to us as “rock bottom”, and it’s the start of moving into the third phase  - recovery.


Stage 3 - Recovery


The Recovery Stage begins with you accepting the frustrations you are having and working out how to overcome them. It can be seen as a turning point where you decide if you want to make the most out of an incredible opportunity to live and work abroad, or give in and return to your comfort zone.


Once you have decided then you will begin to learn how to embrace the new culture you have moved to. It will be frustrating at times, and you will miss home but once you learn to accept these factors then you can focus fully on making the most out of expat life.


Gradually you will pick up more and more of the language and local lingo, and you will be able to find your way about the local area with little effort. Chances are that you will also have started to meet people - neighbours, work colleagues, local shopkeepers- and this could be the beginning of some lifelong friendships.


It will take time, but gradually you will find yourself settling into the country and, often without realising it, you will start to think less and less about life in your home country.


This allows you to start enjoying the many benefits of expat life, and puts you on the way to phase 4 of the culture shock cycle - integration.


Stage 4 - Integration


Many people liken the integration phase to a more realistic version of the honeymoon stage. You have accepted that there will be frustrations and that your home country will have flaws, but you instead make the decision to focus on the positives of a potentially life changing opportunity.


Unlike the honeymoon phase you don’t take a rose tinted view of everything. The language barrier will still frustrate you at times, the lack of food from home will still make you pine for a return and you might even start missing the Great British drizzle! Despite this however you focus on the positives, and accept that part of the adventure is trying and adapting to a new lifestyle.

This stage is known as the integration stage however as you start to integrate more into the life of your new society. By this stage you will understand how attitudes and the working day differ and you’ll start to embrace these changes.


As well as this you will - perhaps even subconsciously - notice that your knowledge of the language will have improved and you will be able to read menus, labels on everyday household and workplace items and public transport timetables.


Memories from this adventure will last a lifetime and, once you realise that it won’t last forever, you will really start to make the most out of every moment of expat life.


Everyone experiences a vast range of emotions when they move to another country. In the same way as everyone moves for a vast range of different reasons.


The more experienced expats often take a move in their stride and experience very little in the way of culture shock. First time movers however are more likely to identify with the 4 clear stages of the feeling when they take their career overseas. Some individuals may be able to quickly move from stages 2 to 4, whilst for others the settling in process can take a whole lot longer.


In part 2 of this series we look at how to help cope with culture shock, and the best ways to move from the crisis stage to the integration phase swiftly.


Keep checking regularly for part 2.

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Can you relate to the stages of culture shock? Let us know if you have any advice or stories for people considering a move in the comments box below this article.


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