How to transition from one culture to another?

Insights from professionals
  • Cultural Shock
Published on 2016-10-13 at 13:26
To make the most of your life abroad, it is best to get prepared. Research, exposure and appreciation, as well as a developed cultural intelligence will be key to your success abroad. Shannon Nicole Bobo tells us more about it.

Moving abroad is always a project full of uncertainties. In general, what are the stages expatriates go through before they have adjusted in their host country.

Expatriates generally experience four stages of cultural adjustment. Lysgaard's U-Curve Theory of Adjustment (1955) is the most cited research on this topic. I like to group the stages into the four phrases commonly spoken during each period.

The first phase is the “Honeymoon Phase”. Expatriates are often fascinated by their new environment and invigorated by the differences. They say things like, “Everything is new and amazing!” A “love affair” develops with the new country that makes your past life look bleak!

The second phase is a “Crisis Phase”. All that newness is now too much to handle, especially without proper training and support. Feelings of depression, anxiety and exhaustion set in. Expatriates often become cynical with their new environment and romanticize their home country. They say things like “Everything is horrible here!”.

The third phase is the “Adjustment Phase”. Consideration begins to be developed and appreciation for the differences between cultures starts to be experienced. Ideally, significant friendships with natives of the host country have been made by this point that help to ease the transition. A re-evaluation of past judgements occurs and expatriates begin to say phrases like “Things aren't so bad, just new.”

The fourth phase is the “Mastery Phase”. It is important to note that some never get to this phase. It is not uncommon for people to get stuck in the phases above and even return home to their native country before learning how to navigate the transition. For those who reach this phase, cultural integration begins to occur. People can successfully solve problem and cope within the new culture while maintaining their own sense of cultural identity. They also have a newly founded sense of flexibility. Expatriates in this phase say things like “Look how much I have learned!”

If not prepared, individuals may suffer from expat blues and may want return home. How can we prevent that kind of situation?

Expat blues usually begins to develop during the second phase of cultural adjustment. If left unchecked, they can be detrimental. There are three practical ways of preventing expat blues from overtaking you: research, exposure and appreciation. When you come to a new culture you should come as a learner. Like any good student, you should prepare for the challenge ahead by researching. Study the language and cultural norms in professional and personal settings. Expose yourself to the culture, ideally before you even get there. Try the food, listen to music, watch movies, meet natives, etc. Whatever you can do, do with earnest. This will help you to develop a healthy sense of appreciation for the culture in all its forms. Appreciation is like oil to an engine, it safeguards against friction.

Please cite some general situations professionals or individuals may face in their international career, that might lead to misunderstanding, frustration or lose-lose situations?

One of the biggest areas of misunderstanding is related to the misuse of language. Most people attempt to learn the language of their host country but fail to realize that language acquisition is not just about learning grammar. Language reflects the way the culture views the world. Once you understand the thinking process behind the language, using it appropriately in a variety of contexts becomes much easier. Tone, intonation and body language are also crucial communication tools that are not properly understood. Language can be compared to music. It has a rhythm, expresses emotion and encourages expression. If you dance salsa moves to country music, you're going to be off beat. The same holds true with language. The tone of some languages is off putting when directly applied to another language.

Another area of frustration has to do with not having enough Fun! As simple as it sounds, when expatriates fail to find ways to truly connect and enjoy their new life in another country it leads to underlying stress. Higher stress levels cause people to be impatient, depressed and reactive. All of these reduce one's ability to navigate difficult situations well.

Lose-lose situations most often are due to not comprehending how respect is shown or trust is earned in another culture. Trust and respect are the foundation of any effective interaction and they are shown differently throughout the world. Gaining a clear understanding of these dynamics cannot be underestimated.

Some countries are culturally opposite one another. Dealing with colleagues in the host country is sometimes daunting; tell us more about this aspect during one's transition and how to deal with the culture shock?

Culture shock is amplified when navigating differences between cultures that are polar opposites. Bridging from a Western culture to an Eastern culture and vice versa is the largest divide to cross. Our modern cities look very similar on the outside, but the underpinnings of the society are based on completely different ethics, religions and philosophies.

Managing expectations is also paramount to when dealing with culture shock. Expatriates can either expect too much or too little from their host country. This is where prior research, exposure and appreciation is the key to adjusting well.

What tools and advice would you give to expats to navigate through their transition well?

I encourage any expat preparing for a cross-cultural transition to develop their Emotional and cultural intelligence. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a mindfulness practice that encourages self-management and gives a framework for better social engagement. Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is the ability to effectively sort out the differences between personal dynamics, personality factors and cultural norms. It allows expatriates to truly thrive in multicultural environments.

Millions of individuals move abroad for professional reasons. What should they do to quickly adapt to their new professional environment?

In a global market place, success depends upon one ability to embrace diversity and realize its benefits. Cultivating a growth mindset is often the difference between success and failure. Much like a tree, a growth mindset has steady roots but can reach out beyond itself and adapt to new environments in order to survive. Yet crossing cultures doesn't mean you don't have any personal boundaries. It is important to know how far you can bridge without breaking.  As I mentioned before you should come as learner, but you also need to know your own value. Developing cultural intelligence should be a priority for expatriates.