Having a cultural exchange is a great opportunity to know first-hand a foreign country, its culture, institutions and, especially, its language. Traveling and living in another country is an enriching experience, it is something that has helped me obtain an open mind, become more tolerant and value diversity. However, after having gone through all the expatriation process to move to England, I thought that I would be constantly excited and welcomed, I also thought that I wouldn’t experience any type of culture shock.
And this is exactly what I’ll be talking about: culture shock—something which is completely normal to experience when you travel, study or work abroad—, its causes and phases as well as some recommendations as to how to adapt to another country.
Culture Shock: How to Successfully Adapt to Another Country
Culture shock is described as being the consequence of a state of anxiety produced by being immersed in another culture, as well as feelings of being lost and confused. Additionally, it is the consequence of strain, anxiety, feelings of loss, confusion resulting from loss of accustomed cultural cues, social rules and the challenge of new cultural surroundings, and the loss of a familiar environment.
(Oberg, 1954, 1960)
Everyone adapts to another country and its culture in a different way; the culture shock you may experience depends on the how long you’ve been planning to live in the country, as well as your ability to tolerate ambiguity and how different your home country is to the country you’re choosing to go to.
The Phases of Culture Shock
When people are still adapting to another country, they tend to go through four phases: 1. The honeymoon phase, 2. The crisis phase, 3. The recovery phase, and 4. The adaptation phase (Ward, et al., 1998).
1. The Honeymoon Phase
Typically, in this phase people feel as if they were on holiday, their honeymoon, or a short trip. The first weeks are full of emotions, happiness, positive expectations and idealization of the new culture. In some ways, this phase is the complete opposite of the crisis phase, and that’s due to the fact that the first experiences people have in a country tend to be restricted to hotels, resorts and airports, something which substantially keeps them separated from the true local culture.
Another factor is that people are normally excited to have arrived to the country they’ve been wanting to go to for a long time, and, just like with infatuation (the ‘in love’ feeling), they temporarily overlook the negative aspects of the situation.
2. The Crisis Phase
During the first few months, or as soon as they get into the country, some people feel that things aren’t going well: small, daily situation become huge problems, and cultural differences become irritating. You might experiment frustration and impatience, thinking that you don’t have control over your life, and you will start idealizing the life you had in your country. All these aspects can increase due to the language barrier. You will find a great number of reasons for not liking your host country and its culture. Consequently, your most common thought will be that of going back home.
3. The Recovery Phase
This phase is related with the final phase: that of effectively adapting to the new culture. It’s possible to adjust without adapting, such as when a person returns home, or isolates themselves by speaking only with people from their country, thus avoiding any contact with the local culture. However, it’s necessary to adjust and adapt; and for this, you have to acquire the ability to solve problems, something useful when dealing with a new culture, and to begin accepting it with a positive attitude.
4. The Adaptation Phase
This phase is reached once the person experiments sustainable adaptation, efficiently solves problems, and deals with the new culture. Some people develop a dual cultural identity and internalize the new cultural aspects with its ways of thinking and worldview. Nonetheless, in best-case scenarios, this takes years, and only if they are planning to stay there forever or are open to the idea of staying there for an indefinite amount of time.
What Can be Done to Successfully Deal With Culture Shock?
- Understand what culture shock is and what its stages are.
- Develop self-knowledge and behavioral strategies to overcome culture shock, among which you can find:
- Learn the language. This way you’ll be able to communicate with locals, which will reduce your levels of stress and the effects of culture shock. The MosaLingua apps are ideal to start familiarizing yourself with the language of the country you choose.
- Prepare yourself to face cultural differences. The more you learn the culture of your host country, the easier it will be to get used to new concepts and experiences. Be sensitive to existing differences, and always be careful when expressing your ideas.
- Have an open mind. Be flexible enough to be able to accept cultural differences and alternative ways of doing things. The unknown can be intimidating at first, but, with time, you’ll find yourself considering the experiences you once thought were strange as normal.
- Be patient. Adapting to a new culture takes time. Be patient with yourself, and allow yourself to make mistakes in order to learn from them.
- Take a break. Adapting to everything you aren’t used to helps, but when you feel that being immersed in the local culture is taking a toll on you, do something familiar. For example, read a book, watch a film, or listen to music in English. You can also learn how to cook traditional recipes from your country; like this, you’ll be able to enjoy meals you used to back home. These activities will fill you up with energy and will help you face any difficulties you are experiencing.
Don’t forget to enjoy your experience of being an expat as much as possible!
– Ward, et al., 1998. The U-Curve on trial: A longitudinal study of psychological and sociocultural adjustment during cross-cultural transition. Int. J. Intercultural Rel, 22(3), pp. 277-291.
– Winkelman, M., 1994. Cultural shock and adaptation. Journal of counselling and development, 73(2), pp.121-133.
BONUS VIDEO: Culture Shock: How to Successfully Adapt to Another Country
Check out our video adaption of this article. It’s in English, but you can head to YouTube to watch it with subtitles in your language.
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