Almost everyone is familiar with the expression „culture shock“, but what is it, actually? What triggers it, how does it express itself, and what can be done against it?
This much in advance: you cannot fully avoid it, merely soften the impact.
So, what is a culture shock?
The experience and individual situation is different for everyone, but the basic structure of the culture shock is always the same. There are four distinct phases:
The honeymoon phase is the euphoric first part after arrival, when everything is new and exciting. Differences and unfamiliar things are seen more as stimulating than, and even difficulties are often seen through rose-colored glasses. Generally most people in this phase would claim that this move has been the best thing they ever did.
After the euphoria of the honeymoon phase, the depression will inevitably follow. In this phase everything is the complete opposite of the honeymoon phase. Differences in habits and customs turn out to be grating after all, and a lack of knowledge of those customs along with language barriers cause an endless string of difficulties. Add to that the onset of loneliness. Family and friends have been left behind, and more and more their absence is being felt.
As difficult as the time of depression might feel – you can be confident that you will adjust to the situation. In the adjustment phase you start to learn and feel at home. The more familiar you get with the local customs and habits, the less intimidating they’ll appear. Newly found friends also facilitate the understanding of the new culture and chase away the loneliness and feeling of isolation.
In the end, you will reach the mastery phase. You have arrived. What used to be problematic differences in habits and customs still exist, but you learned to accept or even appreciate them. The foreign country has turned into a new home.
How the individual phases turn out will be different for everyone, depending on the individual’s personality as well as the specific situation. They can last from several hours up to several months. Even the severity and length of the phases in relation to each other turn out vastly different for everyone. Sometimes the honeymoon phase already ends when leaving the airport. There have even been cases in which the individual didn’t leave the airport at all, but headed straight back home in the next available plane. For others, the depression doesn’t come until several months have passed.
How can the inevitable culture shock be handled and countered, at least enough to avoid the purchase of an airline ticket home the moment the depression phase sets in?
Knowing about culture shock, what it looks like and that it happens to everyone is a good start. To know that it’s not your fault, that it happens whether you made mistakes or not, and that after the difficult phase of the depression the adjustment phase will inevitably follow can help you make it through the difficult parts.
A little more tangible help comes from good preparation. There more you know about customs and traditions in the new country in advance, the less “alien” you will feel. Knowing the language and trying to get a few good contacts even before arrival also help with getting settled quickly.
Anyone who does not move alone is, of course, lucky. If the family can come along, it provides an island of familiarity to return to and draw strength from whenever the world outside seems too strange and alien sometimes.
If it is not possible to take the family along, it helps to seek contact with other expats in the area. Where they are from does not matter. What’s important is the shared experience that everyone without exception goes through culture shock, and you can help each other with going through the individual phases. Besides that, exploring a new surrounding is plainly more fun in a group…