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Moving to a new country is an exciting yet challenging process and it will, without a doubt, take a while for you to adjust. Adapting to an unfamiliar culture in a new environment is possibly one of the most difficult parts of being an expat because of the emotional, mental and physical effect that culture shock can have.
To help expats handle and overcome culture shock, this article will explore its various stages and offer tips about how to deal with the symptoms.
‘Culture shock’ is caused by being exposed to an alien environment and culture, leaving expats and long-term travellers feeling a sense of anxiety, alienation and nervousness. While many expats experience culture shock differently, there are some common symptoms and stages that occur.
The most common phases of culture shock are as follows:
1. The Honeymoon Stage
2. The Frustration Stage
3. The Adjustment Stage
4. The Acceptance Stage
Usually, culture shock begins with a phase of initial excitement or the ‘honeymoon stage’ in which everything feels new, exciting and even euphoric. These intense feelings can last quite a while but eventually, they tend to manifest into feelings of confusion, anxiety and nervousness – also known as the ‘frustration stage’ (the not-so-fun side of culture shock).
Then comes the ‘adjustment stage’ where expats start to feel more comfortable with the culture, and the new surroundings begin to feel far less alien. Simple, everyday tasks may become easier, things like communication and navigation become simpler until it starts to feel like you’re making some real progress.
Finally, the ‘acceptance stage’ or recovery phase happens, in which expats become far more familiar with the cultural differences they’re experiencing. This doesn’t mean that one day you’ll wake up suddenly and understand everything completely, instead it’s more about accepting that it isn’t necessary to have a complete understanding of things in order to function and thrive in your new environment.
Remember, these stages are not always experienced in the exact same order, and they can vary from person to person. Mostly, culture shock feels like an emotional roller coaster, consisting of both positive and negative feelings, one right after another. So, now you know the basic signs and phases of culture shock, here are some ways you can deal with these feelings as best you can:
The internet is a wonderful place to start. Whether you want to learn about dining customs, religious beliefs, or simple cultural ‘do’s and don'ts’ specific to the country you’re moving to, there are plenty of online resources you can use to find out what you need to.
Look out for recent reports like HSBC’s Expat Explorer Survey to find out things about your future home country, like the level of safety or the healthcare quality, and whether you’ll require expat health insurance to keep you covered incase of a medical emergency.
Similar to the way people date before getting into a relationship, you’ll want to test the waters by visiting the country you’re moving to before actually relocating. This way, you’ll be able to experience the culture first-hand, even if it is only briefly.
Try to take a few weeks to explore your new home, its surrounding areas and perhaps even venture further out and travel around a little. Exploring your future country of residence can be a great way to get to know the culture and will hopefully better prepare you for your move.
If you have the time, you could start to locate nearby necessities. Pinpoint things like the local supermarket, the nearest pharmacy and medical facility, shopping malls and markets.
A big step in overcoming culture shock is feeling like you’re a part of the community, and the best way to do this is by making local friends. A good way to do this is by attending social groups, clubs and events where possible.
It can seem quite intimidating at first, but if you dive in with both feet first, you’re sure to meet a mix of people that can help you cope with the cultural differences. Perhaps you might even meet a lifelong friend along the way.
Being in an unfamiliar country can feel lonely, even if you’re surrounded by your family. This is why forming connections can really help you thrive as an expat. As well as befriending locals, making friends with other expats can also help you feel more at home. Having like-minded people around you that completely understand what you’re going through because they’re experiencing all the same things can be extremely comforting.
Having a mixture of local and expat friends gives you the best of both worlds, but don’t forget about your connections in your country of origin either. Keeping connected with the loved ones you left behind and sharing your experiences with them can also help you handle cultural differences.
Even if you’re now living thousands of miles away, keeping connected to loved ones is easier than ever with today’s tech. Social media is a great example of this. It could be as simple as sharing a picture on Facebook or adding to your Instagram story, just to let your family members or friends know how you’re getting on and vice versa.
Language barriers can be a major trigger when it comes to culture shock. Being unable to communicate with the locals can make you feel even more isolated and alienated. So if you’re moving to a country where the language is different to your own, learning the local lingo will help you feel like part of the community. The better you can communicate with the locals, the more you will feel at home.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be fluent as soon as you touch down – merely learning the basics to start with can help you break the ice, and the more you speak the language, the more comfortable you’ll become.
While all of these things can help you handle and overcome culture shock, above all, stay open-minded, and keep a positive attitude. There are sure to be cultural differences that may seem alarming or alien at first, but as long as you tackle these differences with an open mind and a positive attitude, you’ll be all the better for it.