LIFE ABROAD – Published on the 09/03/2022
Whether you’ve always dreamt of living abroad, you’ve been offered a professional opportunity or you’re looking for a new challenge…
Expatriation is always a new beginning. And no matter how exciting, change is also hard. Sometimes, the cultural differences or the distance between your new home and your home country can be difficult to overcome.
Finding your bearings, integrating professionally and socially, getting used to a whole different way of life: that can all be a lot! Here’s an insight into culture and a few tips to overcome homesickness.
Shock. The word seems to imply an immediate reaction to the exposure to a new culture. But culture shock typically happens over the course of the first few months in your new home. In order to better understand culture shock, we need to understand the context.
Kalervo Oberg was the first anthropologist to speak of "culture shock" in the 1960s. He described ‘culture shock’ as the loss of one’s bearings, a feeling of stress experienced by an individual immersed in a new environment
It is the second phase of the "four seasons of expatriation". The adjustment to culture shock is divided into four phases (the four seasons): honeymoon (happiness), crisis (culture shock), adaptation and maturity.
Culture shock is often experienced as a double uprooting. The foreigner feels like a stranger everywhere. Far from their country of origin, far from their host country, disoriented. But expatriates - almost all- overcome culture shock.
Culture shock, does everyone experience it? Actually, none of the honeymoon, crisis, adaptation and maturity phases are a rite of passage of expatriation. Every expatriate’s experience is unique, everyone reacts differently to the same situation. The phases themselves may happen in different orders, repeat, intersect or not happen at all.
But, it is best to make sure you have the tools to deal with culture shock and give yourself the best chances at overcoming it.
What am I expecting from my time abroad? Why choose to leave now? Is the host country a personal choice or has it been imposed? (for an accompanying spouse, for example). Do you know your new country (culture, language, politics, economy, health system, etc.)? Where can you find the necessary information? Is there any cross-cultural training (for employees who are being sent on an assignment)? Do you like to travel? Have you traveled a lot? On a personal level: are you naturally carefree, worried, positive, pessimistic, cautious? Rather expansive or shy...? It is up to the future expatriate to be as honest as possible. These questions are not as candid as they might seem, the answers have the power to better prepare you for your life abroad.
« There are as many ways to react to culture shock
as there are personality types. »
Knowing yourself will help you understand the preparation that a move abroad will require. If you are rather introverted, it will likely be harder to chat people up whether at work or outside. Therefore, making friends might require you to join groups or make friends online before you arrive or get close to your colleagues or roommates. They can act as an anchor to expand your social circle.
It can be really helpful to have as much knowledge as you can about the host country. If you are being sent abroad, perhaps your employer has planned intercultural training.
If this training is not available, you can look into being coached by a professional in intercultural training and glean additional information about your host country (social networks, blogs, webzines, Internet sites, etc.).
A good knowledge of the country and its culture allows for greater self-confidence and serenity. However, while information is reassuring, any excess is harmful. There is no point in overloading a brain that is already busy managing the pre-departure stress.
An expat does not always have the time - or does not always take the time - to carefully observe their new environment. Indeed, amidst registration, social security, finding a bank, looking for accommodation… an expat does not always have the time to play tourist. Your very first days as an expat will be busy but you can turn this into an opportunity.
Seize every opportunity to gather information, on your way to the social security office take the longest route, for the first few days get breakfast at the nearest café and take public transport even if you have a car. Observe and get acquainted with your new neighborhood, the inhabitants, the shops, the workplace, the university, the school...
It is not about confronting your preconceived ideas with reality. Quite the opposite: the pre-expatriation training allows you to better live your new reality. One accepts the new information by accepting not to understand everything, to be different, to feel different, to be perhaps less efficient than one would like..
Culture shock is a difficult period, it impinges on all spheres of expatriate life and can quickly become overwhelming. But in dealing with culture shock, you should be proactive and act as soon as the first warning signs appear.
Talking about your situation and your feelings in a safe space is a very first step. Talking about how you are feeling allows you to take a step back. Ideally, someone in your new environment would help you out, but if you have not made connections just yet, there are other solutions.
While making sure the healthcare system of our new home is important to us pre-move, mental health is often forgotten. Some countries do have more resources than others in terms of mental health and give more or less consideration to this aspect of health. It is important to gather information as to mental health provision before moving and to prepare solutions accordingly.
You can find comprehensive country guides online.
Change and the experience of change always bring new questions and dealing with this trouble period can take time. This period - or these periods as culture shock may resurface during the expatriation- must be welcomed despite the frustration it may cause. Indeed, culture shock plays a central role in the expatriation experience: it helps ask the right questions, learn to be flexible and embrace the unknown and open yourself to the world.
Be patient, accept the bumps along the road and live life to the fullest. You will come out stronger!