Some dismiss culture shock as imagined drama from someone unable to adjust to a new situation but it is very much real and fortunately, with a little self awareness, easy to overcome.
There are thousands of ways we orient ourselves in daily life: social norms, cultural mindsets and customs all keep us grounded in our society. We know when to shake hands, how much to tip the waiter and whether or not our companion was kidding. Relocating to a new environment where all the cues have changed results in frustration, anxiety, disorientation and a sense of loss. This is the reality of culture shock.
Whether it’s your first assignment abroad or your twentieth, the bad news is you will experience culture shock. Not everyone will go through its stages at the same rate or with the same intensity. Those unable to overcome it may leave their assignment early to go home. This happens often in cases where cultural differences are drastic.
The good news is there are predictable stages to culture shock – it is a process – and if you understand the stages you will overcome it and be okay.
The first phase is the Honeymoon Stage. For the first few weeks or months, the strangeness and differences in your host culture are romanticized. Your new life is wonderful.
Then real life sinks in and hostility and anger towards the host country manifests as the second, Frustration Stage, of culture shock. You may feel disconnected from your primary culture while your personal health suffers from differing circadian rhythms, digestive upsets and difficulty finding medical care and familiar cures. Language barrier issues like nuances in conversation tone, body language, and social customs create feelings of loneliness and homesickness. You blame your host country and its unsympathetic people for your issues.
This is where most give up; turn their back on their host country and band with other expats to complain. Know this is a passing phase and if you open yourself to understanding your host culture, you will make it through.
At around six to twelve months, the Adjustment Stage ushers in as routines are established and you become accustomed to your new way of life. Problem solving skills improve at this stage and negative responses to your host culture lessen. Breathe deep, its getting better.
You probably won’t realize it, but at some point you will reach the Mastery Stage where you are a comfortable participant in your host culture. It doesn’t mean forsaking your primary culture but indicates a bicultural state has been reached. Success! You made it through!