During the process of adjusting to a new culture everyone will experience the highs and lows of culture shock, even the most seasoned of expats. Many people talk of the stages of culture shock which can be plotted on a diagram as a wave:
Stage 1 – Excitement, The ‘Honeymoon’ Phase
On leaving your current home, whilst it is sad to say goodbye to friends and family, an exciting adventure lies ahead full of opportunity. This new culture is exotic and fascinating and there will be lots to do and explore. The different pace of life, foods, habits, and daily discoveries will be exciting. The ‘honeymoon’ phase typically lasts between 2-4 months.
Stage 2- Withdrawal, The ‘Negotiation’ Phase
Slowly the excitement and sense of adventure begins to wear off as you have more face to face experience with the new culture. This is when it becomes clear that things are different, sometimes scary and frustrating. You may feel unsure how to act in certain social situations, feel anxious and self-conscious leading you to withdraw. It may be difficult to communicate effectively as language barriers become more of an issue.
Many people will start to feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and that they are unable to carry out the simplest of tasks. To avoid this embarrassment, people will remove themselves from these awkward situations. This is especially the case for the trailing spouse who may have very limited knowledge of the language, and with no job to focus on, they spend a lot of time alone with their negative thoughts.
Homesickness soon follows and people experience the lowest point of the relocation curve. They feel they have no friends, doubt if they can stay and even achieve what they set out to. They will question why they even came in the first place, and will most likely make several teary phone calls home.
But fear not, this stage is only temporary and these feelings will pass! You just have to stick it out and remember things will get better!
Stage 3 – Adjustment, The ‘Adaptation’ Phase
This phase tends to happen 6-12 months after relocation. With time you will inevitably begin to adjust to your surroundings, make friends, feel less isolated, start to have regular routines and gain in confidence.
People manage to successfully blend their own culture with the local one permitting easier integration. The language and culture are no longer overwhelming. People feel settled, happy and ultimately complete what they set out to do.
Stage 4- Enthusiasm, The ‘Mastery’ Phase
You will start to feel at home in the country, viewing it as a ‘second home’. Certain behaviours and traits will be adopted from the new culture and you will start to function like a native. You will comfortably participate fully in the host culture and a sense of normalcy reigns. This brings a feeling of general satisfaction and wellbeing.
Stage 5- Reverse Culture Shock
It may be surprising to some, that when it comes to returning home, many will experience reverse culture shock.
You will feel sad when you finally have to move on, leaving behind your adopted lifestyle and new friends, but at the same time you will feel some excitement at going to back to see your old friends and family.
Once home, the initial excitement can be marred by the reality of going back to work and a lifestyle which can now seem a bit boring in comparison.
You may begin to compare home to your previous location and start to pick out the negatives of your native culture. Being overseas and part of a different culture for an extended period of time will have changed you. You will have a different outlook on life, see your home through a new set of eyes and have changed your behaviour.
With time, everyone re-adapts to their culture. The achievement of what you have achieved will sink in and you will look back on your overseas experience with fondness for the benefits it has given you and your family.
Things you can do to overcome culture shock
Seek support groups
Speak with others who have been through the same experience on online expat sites. Many communities will have groups that the newly arrived can join to get advice and guidance on the settling in process. It is always beneficial to hear other people’s experiences and realise you are not alone. You should take advantage of these as soon as you arrive, even when you are in the honeymoon phase, so by the time you are starting to struggle you feel comfortable attending the groups. Some good sites include:
Attend cultural training and language classes
If you start these before you relocate to your new country, all the better. You will feel so much better prepared and start your journey with that confidence. Please contact TTA if you would like more information.
Go to social events
You just have to get out there and force yourself to meet new people, including natives, and get involved. There will be lots of expat communities, local neighbourhood groups, mothers and parents groups. Language exchanges are another way to meet new people, socialise and improve your language at the same time. Meetup.com is an easy way to find a group near you.
Get to know your local area and surroundings. This will make you feel comfortable and will mean you won’t feel restricted to home. You will bump into people as you are out and about exploring the local parks and visiting cafes and shops.
If you would like further advice on any of the above, please do not hesitate to contact us. If you have any great tips for helping people deal with culture shock, we would love to hear them.
For French expats, you can read our post on French life in London here.
For Spanish speaking expats you can read our previous post on all things Hispanic in London here.