Herne Consultants LimitedSurviving culture shock

Surviving culture shock

Herne Consultants LtdSo much to dowhen you move to a new country!

So much to do!

When someone moves to a new country it is extremely rare not to feel overwhelmed by the difficulties involved in carrying out tasks that at home one could do with confidence and relatively little difficulty.

The first hurdle an ex-pat faces is the sheer volume of urgent actions. When is the last time you had to find a house, doctor, dentist, school, bank, tax number and new job simultaneously?

The second difficulty is doing them in a foreign language in a system you don’t understand. It is little wonder that shortly into their move the average ex-pat starts displaying some if not all of the typical symptoms of culture shock: .

Stages of culture shock

In fact, most people experience culture shock in stages. How happy an ex-pat is feeling changes over time and is often described as “the culture shock curve”. Years of experience show that the right professional help at the right time results in a much happier and faster integration by the ex-pat both into society and into the working environment.

Stage 1: Still at home - what have I done? Stage 1:
Still at home:
“what have I done?”
This is a time of great emotional turbulence. On the one hand there is the anticipation and excitement of a new adventure and on the other hand sadness at saying goodbye to family and friends. This is all mixed with a good dollop of fear of what lies ahead. This is the moment when your social life has never been so good or people so complimentary. In the rush of emotion it is easy to wonder why you are leaving. Maybe you are lucky and your destination is considered a plumb location, in which case slightly envious friends and colleagues promise to visit (you may come to regret this later but at this point it is very reassuring). Chances are that any visits before emigrating will be full of wonderful food, friendly welcomes and great weather.
Stage 2: In the hotel – the honeymoon period Stage 2:
In the hotel:
“the honeymoon period”
The big advantage of staying in a hotel is that they speak English, do your laundry and provide food and drink on tap. It feels much like a holiday. Although you might be a bit stressed about the huge number of things to do (made worse by the tales of woe that seasoned ex-pats will delight in recounting), real life is put on hold for a short while. As you take a stroll and aperitivo in the evening and are welcomed and included by colleagues, it all seems wonderful…...
Stage 3: Coping with real life – crisis time Stage 3:
Coping with real life:
“ crisis time”
Culture shock as it is commonly understood hits either when you have been in your hotel a frustratingly long time due to difficulties in finding accommodation (how is it possible that my rented apartment doesn’t have a kitchen?) or you have finally given up on the idea of a 4 bedroom detached house with garden in the centre of Milan and settled for a more realistic alternative. Now the fun begins as you tackle the growing list of “things to do to get settled in”.
Stage 4: Starting to adjust – settling in Stage 4:
Starting to adjust:
“settling in”
Soon things start to become easier. Ordering a "cappuccino and brioche" becomes second nature and you carry out everyday tasks with ease. You learn some survival skills and find that simply speaking some of the local language gives you more independence and boosts self-confidence. The typical ex-pat oscillates between stages 3 and 4 for quite a long time but it gets easier steadily until life in your adopted country becomes the norm. You get a more balanced view so the driver who swerves dangerously in front of you is no longer “typical foreign driver!” but “typical male/female driver!” Adaptation gives a clearer view of the good and bad that your new and your own country offer.

Coping with culture shock

What can one do to minimize culture shock and speed up the process of integration? I believe the two most important options are to:
  • Change Reality
  • Change your perception of reality
    1. Get someone else to do most of the tasks (or at least accompany you). This is a good short-term solution but even many large international companies help only with the basics e.g. housing and documents.
    2. Get good practical advice on how to sort out the logistics yourself.
    3. Find a mentor/assistant/friend who can help you on a long-term basis. The ex-pat community are usually a good source of help and friendship.
    4. Develop your “task achievement “technique. Here are some examples gleaned from other ex-pats:
      1. When asking for help get all the details (however seemingly trivial) e.g. contact name, address, location right down to "2nd floor at the end of the corridor". I cannot tell you how many times I have arrived at a place and queued before discovering that there are two queues and I was in the wrong one.
      2. Never queue until you have checked that you are in the right place. Jumping to the top of a queue doesn’t come naturally to the queue loving British and order respecting northern Europeans but remember that jumping a queue to check you are in the right place doesn’t count and there are some advantages to being a foreigner. This is one of them.
      3. Always ask the name of the person giving you information - it prevents you having to repeat the whole story at a later date and often results in improved service(!).
    1. Enjoy the best from both cultures.
      You cannot change their culture to be like yours (there are millions of them and only one of you!). Try for a happy balance where you adapt to their norms while maintaining those values which are important to you e.g. continue to take your kids to the playground in winter (no self respecting Italian mother lets her kids play outside when it is cold or damp) but also enjoy Italy’s wonderful beaches in the summer (Italians have the excellent idea of going to the beach for most of July and August).
    2. Increase your cultural awareness (in society and work).
      By definition different cultures do things in different ways. By understanding these differences you can better understand what is going on around you and adapt yourself to make things easier. There are many examples of this: e.g. Italians and Germans are much more formal than Americans, Australians or British. So when they use very formal language with you they are being polite not unfriendly. If you say ciao to an Italian or du to a German they will be taken aback (as this is normally used only with family and friends). Likewise, lots of forward planning is considered laborious and a waste of time by many Italians but their very flexible and creative approach to work allows them to hit their target in a way that more organised, better planned cultures cannot.

    Some final thoughts to ponder:

    cultural differencesPeople who experience greater culture shock at the beginning usually adapt better in the long run because they are more perceptive of cultural differences.
    a new country, culture, language, way of lifeYou moved to experience a new country, culture, language, way of life. Where is the fun if everything is the same as at home?
    culture shockThe type of person most likely to be transferred abroad (successful, high energy, “in control”…) probably has the personality type that is hardest hit by culture shock. People who “go with the flow a little” and are patient and relaxed are the ones who integrate most easily.
    Being a foreigner Being a foreigner can be a huge advantage as you are often allowed (expected even) to behave in a different way.
    Often a smile and a "probably we (insert nationality) do this differently than in (insert host country) but ….. "
    and sometimes you can get away with anything…….

    Surviving culture shock

    The author of this article, Dr Helen Burgess, is Herne Consultants' in-country representative in Italy

    Helen Burgess is a crosscultural management consultant and a specialist in dealing with culture shock
    and how to maximise the benefits of cultural diversity in business.
    She frequently works with major US and European multinationals involved in relocating new staff into Italy.

    Helen can be contacted direct by email or phone: +39 0693 20146

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    ©2012 Herne Consultants - Last updated February 2012