No matter how excited you may be at the prospect of the adventure ahead of you, taking the decision to move to live in a new country heralds a major life change. Some people adapt to their new surroundings more easily than others, but everyone is likely to experience some degree of personal disorientation, or Culture Shock, as they seek to adapt to their foreign environment.
Culture Shock is often described as falling into four distinct phases:
The Honeymoon Phase
Most people experience an initial period of happy excitement as they arrive in their new home and tend to regard their surroundings in a rather romantic light. Their new life feels rather like an extended holiday: they are not yet missing family and friends back home, and they tend to see everything through rose tinted specs. They love their new environment because it is different; they enjoy discovering the local food and taking part in cultural events; the local people they mix with at this point are often well travelled themselves and speak their language; and they are charmed by differences in the pace and style of life they encounter.
Like all honeymoon phases, this will eventually pass, to be replaced by:
The Negotiation Phase
Everyone responds differently to change, but usually after about three months the differences between the old and the new may start to grate. Friends and family back home are missed, the normal rhythms of work and family life are resumed, and the initial excitement may give way to feelings of loss and anxiety. Practical difficulties come to the forefront – there may be language difficulties to overcome, and getting simple things done can require a disproportionate amount of energy when you do not understand local customs and practices. The expat may find themselves feeling unsettled and unhappy, and may possibly be confronted with the same emotions in other family members. Fortunately after about 6-12 months most people find themselves entering:
The Adjustment Phase
As the individual becomes more used to their new surroundings they find that they have developed routines and strategies that help them manage their environment. It no longer feels quite so new and strange and they feel they know how to act in most situations. New friends are made, and they are starting to live a more normal life. They are settling into the adventure! Finally they reach:
The Mastery Phase
The expat now finds that they are able to operate comfortably in their host country, although the extent to which they are able to accept the new culture will vary from individual to individual.
It is thought that as many as 60% of expats fail to integrate fully and instead live within a social circle consisting largely of other expats, regarding their time abroad as a temporary ‘tour of duty’ to be lived out prior to their planned return home. Interestingly, this group is likely to have the greatest problems readjusting when they eventually repatriate.
About 30% of expats are likely to successfully adapt to their new culture by taking on those aspects that they consider to be positive, whilst retaining those aspects of their own culture which are important to them. This group is most likely to adapt well again without significant problems when they return home, or are posted to a new location.
The final 10% of expats are those who become fully culturally assimilated, taking on all the key characteristics of their new social environment whilst gradually losing their original national identity. They are unlikely ever to return to their country of origin.
It is of course possible to feel a sense of ‘Reverse Culture Shock’ on returning to one’s host country after an extended period of living abroad. Individuals are likely to feel more surprised by this phenomenon, particularly if they were among the group who rejected their new culture when moving abroad. Many unconscious adaptations have made which may not have been fully recognised by the individual at the time. During your time abroad you will have had the experience of looking at your own culture from outside and found yourself questioning aspects of it for the first time. There may be difficulty in being accepted by or understood by your old friends and your family, as they have not experienced the same significant personal changes. It is not uncommon to have a sense of feeling different and no longer fitting in.
Culture shock will affect everyone to some extent and some people will be far more affected than others. It is helpful though to expect and anticipate it, and to understand that many of the emotions you experience are common and transitory in nature. Moving to a new country is a big adventure. It will feel strange. And those feelings will pass, leaving you free to enjoy your new life to the full.