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:
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?