Tech & Work

Surviving cultural shock is key to working abroad

Working abroad can be a tumultuous experience, both professionally and personally, due to culture shock. Success depends on manuevering through the five stages of adjustment.


Contrary to what you may think, the hardest part of working abroad isn't finding a place to stay or learning the language. It's learning to cope with the cultural shock. The anthropologist Kalvero Oberg first coined the term cultural shock. He reported that cultural shock was caused by the "anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse" while living and working in another culture.

These cues are part of everyday life, and include the myriad signs, gestures, facial expressions, and customs that help us cope with daily life. When we enter a new culture, these cues are usually not present or so different that they're no longer comprehensible to us.

"When an individual enters a strange culture," wrote Oberg, "all or most of these familiar cues are removed. He or she is like a fish out of water. No matter how broad-minded or full of good will he may be, a series of props has been knocked out from under him."

This is what happened to Lara, a young American IT consultant our company relocated last year to our southern European headquarters. Three weeks after she arrived in Europe, Lara sent a desperate e-mail begging to return home. "The people are so unfriendly," Lara wrote.

"They eat at strange hours and I'm starting to get allergic to the local food. I can't get anything done because their way of doing business is so disorganized and so inefficient. It's all just a big mess. And to top it all off, I think I'm developing a terrible skin itch because of the water. I want to come home!"

What Lara and other IT consultants encounter on their initial assignment abroad is culture shock, which involves five distinct stages that you need to move through to have a successful relocation or assignment abroad.

Learn to recognize the signs
While you can't prevent cultural shock from happening, you can take steps to minimize and mitigate its effects. Your first step should be to recognize when you're suffering from cultural shock. People often associate cultural shock with frustration, irritation, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. You can't cope. You isolate yourself to escape. You turn aggressive toward your host culture.

But there's more to the picture than that. Way back in 1958, Oberg first observed that cultural shock didn't happen as a series of random events. There was a definite pattern to the condition and it evolved over a series of five stages.

Stage 1: The honeymoon
The first couple of months of living abroad are typically a honeymoon period when everything's new, exciting, and fascinating. Everything seems to happen like a dream and you're happy to have accepted this posting.

"Things went fairly smooth for me during my first couple of months in Europe. I was really jazzed about living in a new place and being able to experience new sights and sounds," Lara said when asked about her first impressions. "There were some minor hiccups along the way but I accepted them as part of the game. My European colleagues treated me like visiting royalty. I got treated to lavish dinners and they brought me to all the coolest places in town. Everything seemed really new and challenging and fascinating!" she added.

But as everyone knows, no honeymoon lasts forever.

Stage 2: The rejection
Soon enough, the sheen rubs off the new, exciting, and fascinating experiences and you have to come back down from the clouds and actually live and work in this place. Suddenly you'll start to discover that your ways of doing things—professionally and otherwise—just don't work in the new environment. Stores aren't open when you need them, and the phone operator doesn't speak English well. Leisure time is frustrating because the television programs and the films are dubbed in another language.

As your troubles add up and no one wants to lend a hand to help, you start thinking the locals are either incapable of understanding your problems or just don't care. This in turn triggers the emotion that is one of the surest signs of culture shock: hostility to the new environment. You begin to hate your host country and everyone and everything connected with it.

"Around November, it began getting much colder and I'm not just talking about the weather. It's like all of a sudden, everything became much more difficult," said Lara.

"What were minor inconveniences before became insurmountable obstacles. I began seeing (and feeling) the small differences between here and home—small differences that began to get on my nerves. When I tried to explain my problems to my new colleagues, they got really puzzled over my reaction to what they saw as the norm. These people didn't seem to care about what I was going through. I concluded that they were all selfish and insensitive people," she said to her boss. "I'm normally a very easygoing person but all of a sudden I felt very sad, lonely, and lost. I had trouble sleeping at night. I probably alienated whatever friends I had left with my terrible temper and general lack of patience. I blamed the natives of my host country for all the problems I was having here, and I concluded that the people here did not like foreigners," she added.

Stage 3: The regression
Once you start rejecting your host culture, it's much harder to regroup and recast your attitude. You can either decide to try again—approach everything again with a smile on your face and change your attitude—or you can take the easy road and just withdraw further into your shell.

In the latter case, the signs for failure in the new locale are pretty clear: You refuse to continue learning the local language, make friends among the locals, or take any interest in the local culture. And worst of all, you begin to believe that people are out to cheat or swindle you just because you are a foreigner.

Following this path will inevitably increase your isolation because people will sense the antagonism and begin to avoid you. You'll then have no choice but to seek out other disgruntled souls to grouse about the host country and the people and their strange practices. Everybody feels better bashing the local culture, but it never occurs to anyone that the problem may lie with themselves instead, as Lara's feedback illustrated:

"I figured that I was just wasting my time trying to learn the local language and culture, since no one seemed to appreciate my efforts," she said.

"So I took the decision to only hang out with people who spoke English, especially if they were Americans. I bought a DVD set so I could finally watch a film without those irritating subtitles and I joined an expatriate support group. It was great to meet with other people who hated this country as much as I did. Why did I ever leave home? Things were so much better back home!"

Stage 4: The acceptance
If you can make it through stage 3, the road to getting over cultural shock typically gets smoother. One day, you'll find yourself beginning to smile or even laugh at some of the things that caused you so much grief at the start.

When this happens, you're on the road to recovery. As you begin to become more comfortable with the local language and customs, your self-esteem and self-confidence will return. Your affection for your new home will grow from reluctant acceptance to genuine fondness. You'll finally understand that it's not a matter of whether here is better than there: There are different ways to live your life and no way is really better than another. It's just different. You'll wonder what all the fuss was about in the beginning.

"I lost my way one day and I unexpectedly found myself in a particularly dodgy part of town. I saw a young unkempt girl approaching quickly toward me. My initial thought was that she was going to rob me and take all my credit cards," said Lara on how her acceptance stage began. "I was surprised when she asked me if I was lost and whether I needed help. When she saw that I didn't really understand her directions, she went out of her way to personally guide me to where I had to go to. That event triggered a sort of realization that maybe the people here weren't so bad after all," she added.

Lara actually managed to laugh about getting lost in one of the roughest parts of the city, and began to feel a little guilty about how badly she had been treating her friends and colleagues.

"From that day onwards, I made the resolution to try a little harder to fit in. I began taking language classes and tried to participate in as many local social events as I could schedule into my PDA. I began going out with my coworkers and I even made the effort to cook a couple of local dishes for them," she said.

Stage 5: The re-entry
Many times, it's just about the time where things begin to jell that you may realize that your assignment is ending and the time has come to pack up and return home.

Most start thinking about how nice it will be to return to familiar surroundings, back to friends and family and all the things you love and cherish. But the re-entry can be much harder than most realize.

When you slowly forced yourself to like and love your new home, you probably had to confront your long-held beliefs and attitudes and gradually deconstruct them to make room for new values and ideals. You adopted new habits and a new lifestyle and it can be difficult to go back to your old life. Things change and people change.

It will take a while to reacquaint yourself with the cues and signs and symbols of your home culture. Give yourself time to adjust. You can minimize the re-entry shock by understanding your reaction and taking things with a positive attitude.

Going with the flow
Self-awareness is the best strategy for overcoming cultural shock. As Lara said, you can't stop cultural shock from happening, but you can minimize the downtime you spend in the three vicious downward cycles of rejection, regression, and re-entry. Remind yourself of the following:

Ignorance is not bliss. Culture shock is here to stay, whether you like it or not. It will probably affect you one way or another, but it doesn't last forever. Learn to recognize the signs and understand where you are in the process. Sitting around being negative and critical will just deepen your gloom. Try to look for the positive side of the worst situations.

Don't blame it on the bossa nova. When you're down and in trouble, remember that the problem probably isn't so much in them as it is in you. So stop whining and shape up or ship out.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Adapting your style to the local customs may be tough, but it will pay off in the long run. Coming with guns slinging and imposing your way of doing things is not a good approach, although it happens more than you would think.

Set a goal and stick to it. The busier you are, the less time you have to think about your sad situation. Try to organize something pleasant to look forward to each day. Set goals for yourself—making a new friend each day, for example—and stick to them.

The best of both worlds
When it comes down to it, the number one way to get past cultural shock is to understand that it's not a matter of which culture is better. You have to learn to neither completely reject your own culture nor that of the new one. The better you get at conveying openness and comprehension across cultural borders, the easier it will be for you to enjoy the richness of the best of two worlds. Remember that your colleagues who have spent assignments as visitors in the United States have gone through the same types of experiences, too.

Lara hung in through the cultural shock and eventually fell in love with the country (and one of the natives too, apparently). The company is currently having problems convincing here to return to home base, but that's another story.

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