Culture shock: 10 tips for coping as a new expat

Flying from, say, a cold European winter and plunging straight into the heat and chaos of Delhi or Bangkok is bound to result in having to deal with culture shock.

Culture shock is a phrase many of us have used without much thought when we arrive somewhere that’s a complete contrast to home.

But true culture shock is more serious than a jolt to the senses; it’s a real sense of disorientation and sometimes, depression, especially when you are away for a long time and all the behavioral cues and values that shape your daily world have gone. Non-working spouses who have relocated with a partner are known to suffer particularly badly, but culture shock can affect anybody. Be reassured that it’s normal – and it can take you completely by surprise.

The reality of culture shock

Culture shock normally has four phases: initial euphoria, followed by hostility, then depression, then gradual acceptance and assimilation – and it won’t necessarily hit you as soon as you arrive. The majority of people come through it and assimilate to the point where they can move between two cultures, and even miss the new culture when they go home. But the beginning can be tough. Here are some of the most common symptoms:

  • Feeling very tired
    Weeks after the jet lag ought to have passed, you still feel exhausted and sleep a lot.
  • Feeling bored and unable to focus
    This is especially tough when the honeymoon phase has passed and you have a sensation of “Is this as good as it’s going to get?”
  • Inexplicable weeping
    Once the euphoria of the new has faded, real sadness at being away from home is completely natural.
  • Hostility towards local people
    You may find yourself blowing minor irritations right out of proportion, or feeling everybody is trying to cheat and rob you. You take everything personally and project the difficulties you are experiencing onto the locals in your new environment.
  • Distaste for the environment
    You feel as though everything is unhygienic, or polluted, or too noisy. You don’t want to try local food.
  • Lack of enthusiasm for learning the language
    Inability to communicate makes you more frustrated – and more isolated.
  • Drinking too much and relying on comfort food
    You try to ‘escape’ through alcohol and cling to comfort or junk food.
  • Joining other expats in criticizing your new environment
    While it’s reassuring to share funny new experiences and frustrations, constantly disparaging your new home isn’t healthy. Chances are, the people you’re having a moan with are probably suffering from culture shock, too.
  • Idealizing life back home
    This is a form of regression; everything at home is better and almost irrationally glorified.

Sound familiar? Here are some well-documented coping strategies.

How to cope with culture shock

  1. Be prepared. Learn as much about your new environment as possible before you go on a new expat assignment.
  2. Give yourself time. You may be in a new climate, speaking a new language and eating new food, all of which take their toll on mind and body.
  3. Learn the language. It goes without saying that being able to communicate expands your horizons enormously.
  4. Build a support group. Join local societies, or a gym, or anything that means you won’t be alone all the time.
  5. Try to befriend locals as well as ex-pats to gain clearer perspective on the way of life.
  6. Stay in touch with home via Skype, write a blog and keep a journal; documenting your new life may help you see beauty and interest in the  surroundings.
  7. Try to sample local food, even if it’s very gradually.
  8. Try to see things as different, not wrong and try to understand the logic of why they are done this way.
  9. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to discuss your situation, possibly with someone who has been through it themselves.
  10. Understand that you’re experiencing culture shock and that it will pass.

Are your people equipped with the right mindset and skills to communicate and collaborate across a diverse workforce?

Country Navigator enables globally connected businesses to thrive for the future, today. If your people are working across cultures and virtual technologies no doubt they are coming up against barriers to communication and collaboration. We develop the skills and mindset to overcome these challenges and enable your organization to be truly globally connected. If these are some of the challenges you are facing please get in touch.

culture shock


About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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