Ask any expat: culture shock is one of the hardest parts of moving abroad. No matter how long you are gone, you will eventually feel all the highs and lows of adjusting to a new culture.
Cultural adjustment is a cycle;
one that does not simply end when you return home.
An Expat Honeymoon
Mary, a recent expat to France, says that the first few months felt like vacation.
“You have so much to explore. Discovering new places, eating new foods, and learning about the new culture.”
A Princeton University study on cultural adjustment calls this initial euphoria “The Honeymoon” stage in the four-step process of adjusting to a culture. At first, an expat’s involvement with the new culture is superficial, much like a tourist. Expats are keen to learn, and to compare similarities and differences with their home culture.
Sooner or later, the novelty wears off. What used to be a fascinating cultural difference becomes a source of annoyance. You might be irritated by or even hostile to the new culture.
For Elisa, a French expat blogger in Ontario, Canada, “The credit card system was quite a shock – how can people live on credit on a daily basis?” she says. “People buy, a lot, all the time, for any reason. There is no saving culture like in Europe.”
At this stage, homesickness sets in. You seek out friends from your home country instead of local friends, and feel far away from friends and family. If you do not speak the language, not being able to communicate can be isolating.
Jeff Steiner of Americans in France says, “I think the biggest shock for Americans coming to France is having to deal with is the language barrier. It’s not easy living in a country if you don’t speak the language.”
Gradual Adjustment, Humor and Perspective
As you adjust, you begin to feel comfortable and less isolated. Language can help you speed through the culture shock phase.
“Make sure before moving to France that you study as much French as possible and try to plan for what’s in store.” Steiner recommends. “If your French is minimal when you arrive that will greatly effect your experience.”
The same advice is true for expats moving to any country.
According to the Princeton study, humor shows you are transitioning well. “You are able to laugh at certain ways of doing things that previously just annoyed you and even to laugh at yourself from time to time.”
Feeling at Home
You know you have adapted when you can appreciate the new culture. You may even find aspects of the new culture that you prefer to your home culture.
“I think that ‘come as you are’ could be Canada’s mantra,” Elisa says. “In France, you can sometimes feel observed or judged about the way you look, the way you dress. Nothing like this here. You can just be yourself, and it feels good!”
At this stage, Princeton’s study shows, “the aspects of the culture that are different…no longer affect you in a negative way.”
The End of the Cycle?
Expats moving abroad expect culture shock. But what about when you go back home?
Craig Storti, author of The Art of Coming Home says that “while expats are usually expecting culture shock and expect a period of adjustment, they often assume that going back home is different; that they will adjust quickly because, after all, it’s home. But it’s a transition, just like going overseas is, and it will be a period of time before you will feel readjusted.”
Once you have lived abroad, you may never view your home country the same way.
Storti recommends, “have realistic expectations, be patient with the process, and give yourself time to readjust.”
The Key to Your Expatriation
Expatriation forever changes you. Know what you can do to prepare to integrate in your new culture. Be patient with yourself.
Storti’s advice for repatriates is equally true for expats facing culture shock, “The single most effective way to prepare…is to be expecting it and not be caught off guard.”