Avoiding culture shock: 4 tips for coping with a new culture

16 February 2017

If you are planning to live or work overseas, you will no doubt have heard the term ‘culture shock’. Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes”, it is a common experience for expats.

You will of course expect things to be different in your new host country. (If not, our post The Top 5 Expat Surprises will help you get ready.) The experience of adapting to a new culture and society in all its glorious strangeness is part of the appeal, but culture shock can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Know what to expect

No expat will travel without at least a little research into the country – and the more you do, the better placed you are to understand the country you are moving to and its people. Whether you start by talking to friends or visiting Wikipedia, Tripadvisor or any other online community, take time to learn a little before you go. Check out the history, the weather, the religions, the cuisine, the politics (and make sure the national holidays don’t catch you by surprise!). Alongside your pre-trip preparation, here are a few of FIDI’s own tips to help you make the most of your time abroad:

1. Learn the local language

You may have a little school learning behind you, or you may be travelling to a place where even the alphabet is baffling. The principle is the same – the more effort you make, the richer the reward since a country’s culture is inextricably linked to its language. Why limit yourself to information that has been translated for the benefit of non-native speakers? To experience the real country, aim to get at least a basic grasp of its language.

Expats tend to be adept at foreign languages. A 2015 survey by Internations found that 89% of expats spoke at least a little of the local language, but these statistics vary widely depending on the location. Also, natives of certain countries are also more multi-lingual than others: for example, 37% of Danes speak five or more foreign languages, while native speakers of English are far less likely to learn foreign languages because the need is less pressing.

There are online lessons that will help you, or you may consider private tutoring – which of course can be done before you leave or when you get there – and these will be a huge help. More practically, the trick is exposing yourself to the language as much as possible. Watch the local news, listen to people in the street, buy a local paper: whatever your level, you will find that a little of the language will gradually sink in by a process of osmosis.

2. Build your network

If you are travelling for professional reasons, you may have a ready-made network of colleagues waiting for you. Use this to the full, since they have a vested interest in your welfare and will be pleased to help you integrate and learn about the local culture.

If you’re moving independently for the long run, there is also of course the expat network – but this is a double-edged sword. You will find plenty of communities online (start with Facebook) that will give you introductions to fellow compatriots who have relocated in the same way you have. These fellow expats will be able to relate to you and your situation and will give you valuable advice. But there is also a danger of getting too comfortable in this cosy ‘home-from-home’, and missing out on the experiences that your new host country has to offer. After all, your aim is to avoid culture shock – not to avoid culture itself!

Personal connections with locals is also essential. In fact, psychologists suggest that culture shock is more easily accepted if you see your experience in terms of interactions with individuals, as opposed to your relationship with a culture per se.  

3. Remember you’re not on holiday

You may already have vacation experience of your host country. But don’t assume that living there – paying the taxes, dealing with local paperwork, using medical services, and dealing with rush-hour traffic – will be the same. It simply won’t and culture shock can be most dramatic to those who fall into this trap – even though they are not new to the culture.

It is equally dangerous to treat your time there as a holiday. Apart from the fact that you may have professional obligations, expats may find it easy to spend money freely as if it were a vacation. Money worries will only add to the problem of culture shock. Go carefully and be realistic.

4. Don’t overstretch yourself

While this is not the same as a holiday, there is also a risk of over-committing professionally. You will be keen to get going and make an impression, but allow time for simply experiencing the place. Spending too long staring at the four walls of your office, shop or studio will alienate you from your new surroundings. Allow yourself enough time to get out there and experience it first-hand.

Vive la difference!

Brace yourself. Your time overseas – whether temporary or for the long term – will no doubt be a fascinating and memorable experience. But don’t fool yourself into thinking it will all be plain sailing. In extreme circumstances, expats can suffer from depression but if you make the effort – by following some of the tips in this post, for example – you will be better placed to overcome any problems and enjoy your expat life to the full.

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