Are new encounters really shocking – or simply unfamiliar?
When preparing people for life and work abroad cultural trainers often address the issue of culture shock. Sometimes this may sound like there will be a wave of negative experiences and emotions crashing on the shores of expat existence. Let’s set the record straight on this: The idea of a shock isn’t the best way for our profession to explain the transition between cultures. Calling the challenges of adjusting to a new and different environment a shock isn’t really a concept which will support those who embark on the journey into foreign lands.
By definition, a shock is a sudden upsetting or surprising event or experience, which typically leaves the upset person with a feeling of disturbed surprise resulting from an upsetting event. A shock can also be the violent shaking movement caused by an explosion or an impact. So, to describe the irritation some expats feel when being exposed to a an unfamiliar set of behaviors and social norms as a shock is a quite a bit of an overstatement.
At this point it would be fair to admit that our team is guilty of having used the culture shock concept liberally in our trainings in the past. And it should also be noted that we have put an end to this practice.
Let’s get real with global transferees
For our expatriate cultural training programs we decided to forgo the culture shock terminology altogether. Instead, we choose to refer to the process as adaptation and acclimatization period. Often this adjustment time will be packed with experiences that are unusual or not “normal” (according to the set of behavioral preferences in one’s home culture). Sometimes these encounters with the unfamiliar or “the other” may be a bit challenging or irritating. But let’s be real: they aren’t shocking. The “expat doctors” will only diagnose a shock if transferees themselves make unusual experiences into something more than unusual.
The meaning-making machines
As humans we are meaning-making machines – our brains have the ability to give any experience a certain meaning. As humans we also have a choice. We can choose to make an upsetting encounter mean something negative and label it as “shocking.” We can also decide to make it mean something entirely different. For example, we can choose to delay the meaning-making until we better understand the behavior which seems so unfamiliar or even unacceptable at first.
Sounds easier said than done, you say? Well, yes. To a certain extent this is correct. However, robust cultural trainings and expat support programs will create an awareness among their participants that the idea of “normal” behavior is a very arbitrary concept. There are thousands, if not millions, of different sets of “normal” around the world. It’s up to the individual to decide whether the new “normal” is weird, or simply different.
The cultural adjustment curve
During the adaptation period every expat goes through some exciting and inspiring as well as some demotivating and unpleasant phases. To label those ups and downs as shocking is missing the point. Sure, the emotional roller coaster ride of expatriates can sometimes be a bit wilder than that in the home culture. Let’s look at the peaks and valleys and the trips in between:
- First, there is the honeymoon period, which happens before, or during the beginning of a foreign assignment. It is often perceived as overwhelmingly positive: expats become infatuated with their new surroundings, the language, the people, the food. At this stage, the move appears like the smartest decision ever, an exciting adventure to stay on forever. Some say it feels like being on vacation.
- Every vacation ends at one point. In the case of expats, though, the “vacationers” aren’t going home. That’s usually when the initial wave of frustration crashes down upon the foreign assignee. There are so many things to take care of. Friends and family haven’t come along. Navigating daily life in a foreign language is draining. Establishing routines at the new location takes time. Everyday tasks require conscious decision making, life doesn’t happen on autopilot. Small things – like losing keys, missing the bus or not being able to easily order food in a restaurant – can trigger frustration.
- As expats begin to establish new routines for their life abroad, they develop a feeling of accomplishment (“That wasn’t so hard after all!”). They try out new things, explore new places, rediscover their curiosity for the host location – thus, expats feel like they’ve adapted well. They learn how the transport system works, they no longer need a GPS to navigate around the area. For some, this phase leads right into adaptation (see below). For most other expatriates, there is a second challenging period.
- After the superficial adaptation, most transferees experience another frustration period which can be even more taxing than the first one. This often happens around 6 to 9 months into the assignment. And it comes as a huge surprise to those expats who go through it. At this point they assume their adjustment is complete, with all the initial struggles behind them. However, it is typically at this juncture that the deeper differences between home culture and host country culture become apparent. Up to this point, the expat only had to handle the various dos & don’ts of the new environment. Now the underlying whys of unfamiliar behaviors begin to surface. The beliefs and value systems in the host culture become clearer and sometimes this leads to feelings of disappointment, mental isolation, stress, and even anger. “Why am I here?” or “Why did you accept this position?” are questions that can come up.
- In an ideal world this would be the best time to take a short vacation. Their instincts will tell expats to go back to their home country, visit friends and family. Our recommendation is to go anywhere but home. This would only amplify the issue. Instead, we advise transferees to travel to a new location. One where yet another language is spoken and where climate, infrastructure, topography, and culture are different from home and from the host location. This simple trick will provide another perspective. And when expats return from that trip to enter their expat house, in their expat country, in their expat city, it will feel to them more like coming home. The phase of adaptation usually begins when people feel at ease and safe with their host country. Adaptation doesn’t necessarily mean that new cultures or environments are fully understood (actually, that rarely happens) – rather it signifies realization that complete understanding isn’t required to successfully function and thrive in the new surroundings.
So, let us invite you to engage your meaning-making brains in order to categorize new and unfamiliar behaviors as exactly that – unfamiliar. The experiences you make in a culture that’s new to you may have not registered with your personal value system – yet. Gradually, you will learn to decipher the different behaviors. Some of them you will find acceptable, others may never become yours. And almost none of them will ever be shocking.
Or, as Persian philosopher and poet Rūmi said: Beyond right or wrong there’s a field – let’s meet there.
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