The physical and psychosocial symptoms of culture shock vary from expat to expat, as does the extent to which each person is affected. The good news is that there are several strategies to diminish the severity and manage the symptoms.
Knowledge-based strategies for managing culture shock
Many expats fail to recognize the symptoms of culture shock and instead think there must be something wrong with them. Knowing you’re experiencing a normal reaction to an overseas move (and not going crazy) is a welcome relief.
Continuing to learn about the host country is a critical step in the battle against culture shock. The more knowledge you have about your new environment, the better. Carefully watching how local people act in various situations is a low-risk and effective method of learning appropriate behaviours. (Don’t worry if the reasoning behind them isn’t yet clear — that will come in time.)
Books and websites are good sources of information, but the best resources are host country nationals. Most people are proud of their culture, and delight in showing it off to newcomers. Asking questions with genuine curiosity (never hostility or derision) may lead to a wealth of information. Cross-cultural training, either pre-departure or in-country, is another useful option.
Making friends with local people is rewarding on many levels. It’s especially helpful if you find someone willing to act as a cultural informant. Making connections within the expat community is also beneficial, as it reduces feelings of alienation and loneliness. However, experts warn that socializing exclusively with fellow expats might prevent you from connecting with your host culture on a deeper level.
Emotion-based strategies for managing culture shock
There’s no way around it — the most effective way to manage culture shock is to adjust your attitude. The first step is to acknowledge the loss of leaving the old, familiar life behind. Take some time at the beginning of a posting to grieve what came before, and then let it go so you can focus on the future.
Keeping an open mind is critical. The expatriate who views the new culture with an attitude of openness and respect will have a far better outcome than one who is suspicious and critical.
Successful expats use the following strategies to limit the effects of culture shock:
- They build a strong support system and know when to access it. (This includes friends, family, and formal channels such as the sponsoring organization’s IEAP.)
- They tweak their outlook by viewing the time overseas as an opportunity for personal growth.
- They break out of their comfort zone, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day to start.
- They record their experiences, thoughts, and feelings in a journal or blog.
- They have a sense of humour and faith in their abilities.
- They get to know local people.
- They make the effort to learn — and use — the language.
- They nurture family relationships.
- They set small, achievable goals and regularly evaluate their progress.
- When things go wrong (and things will always go wrong), they don’t automatically blame the host culture.
Embracing your host culture is essential for dealing with culture shock, but that doesn’t mean you have to reject your passport culture. Because the brain is constantly bombarded with novel stimuli in the new environment, taking the occasional mental break gives you a chance to integrate the new information and re-establish your cultural identity.
Remember my friend Deborah (she of the uncontrollable label-ripping habit)? Deb discovered the importance of cultural time-outs when Starbucks came to her host city of Belfast. Although she’s not a fan, she was thrilled when the shop opened. “I could walk into Starbucks and imagine myself being home,” she told me. “Even though it was important for me to immerse myself in the culture of Northern Ireland, every now and then I needed those little touchstones to keep me grounded in who I am and where I came from.” (Irony alert: now that we’ve both repatriated, Deb and I regularly meet at Starbucks to catch up on our lives.)
Physical strategies for managing culture shock
The stresses associated with expat life invariably cause physical tension, which can lead to illness if you’re not careful. Good physical habits are vitally important in the battle against culture shock. Daily activity is a must, and some form of relaxation therapy such as yoga, meditation, or massage never hurts. You know the rest: get adequate sleep and fresh air, eat balanced meals, and go easy on the alcohol.
Avoiding culture shock entirely may not be possible. In fact, experiencing culture shock may be a necessary step on the journey to expatriate adjustment. Fortunately for all of us, its sometimes debilitating effects can be managed with the right strategies.