U-Curve? Maybe not

The U-curve is a hypothesis proposed by Norwegian sociologist Sverre Lysgaard in 1955 to describe the stages of cross-cultural adjustment. He wrote:

“Adjustment as a process over time seems to follow a U-shaped curve: adjustment is felt to be easy and successful to begin with; then follows a ‘crisis’ in which one feels less well adjusted, somewhat lonely and unhappy; finally one begins to feel better adjusted again, becoming more integrated into the foreign community.”

Although Lysgaard never produced a diagram to illustrate his theory, several have been developed over the years. They all look something like this:

U-Curve? Maybe not

The Honeymoon stage is characterized by anticipation and delight at the newness of the host culture and its people. The expat is excited by the possibilities. This is sometimes referred to as the “rose-coloured glasses” stage and lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

The Crisis stage is often referred to as “culture shock.” This is the point at which it becomes apparent to the expatriate that the norms and behaviours of the host culture don’t always work in the new environment. The expat is frustrated, confused, hostile, and unable to function effectively. This stage is represented by the trough in the diagram — it is literally the lowest point of the adjustment process in terms of satisfaction, and hits around the 4-6 month mark.

The Recovery stage is where things start to look up. The expat has begun to figure out the rules of the new culture and is feeling more comfortable and in control.

The Adjustment stage is the final phase. At this point the expat has integrated into the host culture and is able to function without much effort, perhaps even adopting a dual cultural identity. This is the period of highest satisfaction.

The U-curve model is widely used in cross-cultural training sessions and in the culture shock literature. The problem? It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. To be fair, Lysgaard never intended it to be taken as gospel — it was a hypothesis that cried out for further research. Sure enough, subsequent studies have found that only 10% of the population cycles consecutively through these four stages of adjustment. For the rest of us, it’s more complicated: we go through the stages in a different order, at different times, or perhaps not at all. Some expats, for example, never get to enjoy a honeymoon stage — they’re unhappy with their host culture from Day 1. (This was my unfortunate experience the first time I lived in France. I think I skipped the adaptation stage, too.) Most studies, in fact, indicate that it’s the first few months of expatriation that are the most stressful.

The path we take to adjustment depends on many factors: our feelings and expectations about the move, the extent of difference between the two cultures, the amount of social support available, etc. Personality also plays a role in adjustment. Bottom line: there is no timetable for integration. It’s a messy, unpredictable beast with a timeline all its own. We all adapt at our own pace, in our own way. If I had to draw a diagram of my own adjustment, it would look something like this:

What would your diagram look like?

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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23 Responses to U-Curve? Maybe not

  1. Sally says:

    I’ve been incredibly lucky. I fell in love with Hong Kong at ‘hello’ five and a half years ago when we first moved here. I remember constantly pinching myself with excitement. All these years on, I’m more in love with this city than ever. For some reason I never went through any mourning or sad stages. I think it may have helped that HK is only an 8 to 9 hour flight back to my home in Sydney and the time difference is only 2 to 3 hours. Consequently it is easy for friends and family to visit us and also to call us. HK is also an incredibly exciting and fun place to live. There is always something happening and awesome people to meet. Finally, I think the culture shock is probably not as bad here as other places. Most people have at least basic English and are pretty understanding and accommodating of Westerners which definitely makes living here easier. I nevertheless would never have imagined 6 years ago that my eldest( who was 5 when we arrived) would be beginning secondary school here as she is in two weeks time. I can’t imagine being anywhere else in the near future, and for that I feel infinitely grateful : ))

    • Maria says:

      I’m positively green with envy. You’re right — you’re very lucky! Even when I was completely in love with my host country, there were tough times. It was a lot like raising children, in fact: I love my kids more than life itself, but there are plenty of days when I’m convinced I’ll never get the hang of this parenting thing. And then the sun comes out again, and life is good.

  2. Expat Alien says:

    I love your diagram.

  3. gkm2011 says:

    My phases would be a very long honeymoon period, the first year, then a deep crash about one year in, then a slow build up to the acceptance period over the next year and then remaining. I had heard this theory before I moved and I thought I was past the dip, so when it hit it was even worse because I couldn’t rationalize why all of a sudden everything bugged me.

  4. Judy says:

    Your diagram is so much more accurate! Culture shock is not linear and it strikes people at different times in different ways in each new location. It can also re-occur. We lived in the Middle East for many years and (like anywhere) there were things I loved about it and things I didn’t. For many years I was able to tuck away the things I didn’t like in the back of my mind, but eventually they came tumbling out and started bothering me far more than they had in the beginning. Maybe there’s a sell-by date for some expat assignments?

  5. Hi Maria,
    As always, you’ve made me laugh out loud. That bungled, knarled mess is probably much closer to most people’s experiences adjusting to expat life. It appears that there is a common thread between your diagram and Lysgaard’s… they both start low and end high, which is the desired outcome, right?
    Cheers,
    Anne

  6. Sine says:

    I also have to say that I never really experienced any tough times wherever we lived. Each new place we go to seems to be a bit like the honeymoon stage. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to bitch and moan about (have I ever mentioned Eskom and the traffic police:-), but I tend to find these things endearing (way more endearing than I would in my birth country, come to think of it). Perhaps the reason is that I’ve always sat down to write about it and that made it much easier to get through. Or perhaps it is because I always tend to look at the task at hand and what must be done, without thinking too much about the bigger context. Or perhaps because I’ve always been able to find some good coffee and a good book…

  7. Joseph Nebus says:

    I had a generally easy time, going expatriate in Singapore. It certainly helped that English was prominent enough that I couldn’t get too lost in the signs or books, and that there was so much American influence; it’s hard to feel completely cut off from home when you can still watch Cartoon Network. But I got to the adjustment stage quite fast and stayed there a while. It was harder and took more adjustment coming home.

  8. dena barrie says:

    Wondering if there is another dip after traveling home for your first time?? Just got back after a summer at “home” and feeling the dip again!

    http://itsabouttakingthejourney.blogspot.de/

    • Maria says:

      I think that depends on how you feel about both places. I was always sad to leave after a trip home, but happy to be back in Singapore. I know people who go home out of duty and can’t wait to return to their host country. Some people have a little dip and quickly rally. The good thing is that now you know there’s a possibility you’ll feel a bit down after your next home leave. If it happens, you’ll know it’s something you’ve dealt with before. If it doesn’t happen, that’s a bonus!

  9. Maria,
    While I very much agree with your diagram I did find it useful in cultural training sessions to use the W-curve. It is merely an approximation, an abstract model, to illustrate to first-time expatriates that they signed up for a roller coaster ride.

    • Maria says:

      You’re one of the good guys! It’s the trainers who don’t make it clear that it’s an approximation who do a disservice to their trainees. Some of these diagrams come with very specific time frames for each stage, which can be confusing and distressing for expats whose experiences don’t match up. Too many expats are told that once they get through the “bad patch,” they’re home free, which is not necessarily the case. The roller coaster model is actually more accurate because it allows for multiple ups and downs instead of one tidy curve. It’s the same with the W-curve: repatriation isn’t cut and dried, either.

  10. Maria says:

    I love hearing people’s stories about this. It’s always interesting to me how much variety there is in individual experiences. There’s no one-size-fits all when it comes to this stuff.

  11. expatlingo says:

    Love your thoughts on the inadequacy of the expat adjustment U-curve. Add in a serial postings and the birth of a few children and you’ve got a real roller coaster of constant change!

  12. I agree 100 percent that any sort of “normative” adjustment process in insufficient to adequately predict what an individual’s actual experience will be like. As you mentioned, there are way to many factors that play into a person’s ability to adjust to a new culture. One such factor that I’d like to put forth is the “fit” of a country. Sometimes you just never really get a feel for the place in which you live (see me and Japan), and you never really feel like it’s a good fit for your personality.
    I’m discovering that I’m way more indonesian than I an japanese. So far, anyway.
    (here’s my take on it, I hope you don’t mind if I link here… http://expatriababy.squarespace.com/blog/2012/8/9/cross-cultural-adjustment-the-u-curve-and-the-fit-of-the-pla.html )

    • Maria says:

      Fit is huge. I’ve spoken to many expats who happily moved all over the world for years… until they hit their Waterloo. You say it so beautifully in your post, Erica. I’m glad Indonesia is a better fit for you.

  13. Naomi says:

    I LOVE your diagram! I think it depends 100% on where you are situated, and where you’ve come from … I have stories upon stories of people who have SUCH varied experiences in Delhi — which is not an easy locale to master — and some fared well and others, not so well. It is all about the place in time that you are … at the moment you arrive. Something that experts can’t nail down – no matter what their level of expertise.

    I like your synopsis best!

  14. Brooke Hill says:

    I am just preparing to relocate to Singapore with my family…3 kids. We love our current neighborhood aNd are trying to get excited about leaving. I know there will be pros and cons to moving and it’s been helpful to read your thread. However, I have a question about why it’s so hard to relocate back home after the assignment?

    • Maria says:

      Hi Brooke, a lot of it comes down to expectations. When you move to a place like Singapore, you expect things to be different and you aren’t really surprised when culture shock hits. Living in a foreign culture affects you in many ways, and your opinions, attitudes, and behaviours may change without you even realizing it. When it’s time to return to your home country, you don’t expect the adjustment will be difficult, because after all, it’s home. The problem lies in the gap between your memory of the way things were (including yourself) and the reality of how they are now. You may find yourself looking at things with new eyes, and people will almost certainly react to you differently. It all feels very strange. (Robin Pascoe said it best in her book “Homeward Bound” when she compared it to having contact lenses in the wrong eyes: everything looks almost right.) You can also toss your feelings about leaving expat life into the stew — that often leads to depression in varying degrees. The severity of all this depends on many factors, including your personality, how long you were away, how much effort you made to keep up with friends and events in your home country, whether or not you were involved in the decision to repatriate, etc. In my experience, people who make a plan for dealing with these things before they return have an easier time of it.

  15. I have the impression that once you have been expat you are expat for your entire life no matter where is the following destination (including home-relocation), of course with pros and cons.
    I like the idea of the roller-coaster inspired by the theory of Sverra Lysgaard but complemented by the ups and downs of the numerous variables of the expat life.
    If I decide to draw mine, adding colors and shapes, it might be a surprising piece of art!
    Thanks a lot for sharing :)

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