Coping with culture shock


The Starbucks Café near the Red Square in Moscow is full of North-Americans, behaving in exactly the same way as they would in a branch of that chain in, say, Philadelphia or Vancouver: they sip coffee-flavoured drinks, stare at their laptops, or use their smartphones to FaceTime with friends or family back home.

They are expats going through stage two of the process known as culture shock. Once the excitement and novelty of exploring a new host culture wears off, expats enter a phase during which any differences between ”home back home” and their new home become annoyances. Stereotypes and prejudices about the locals are reinforced at every turn. Miscommunication is frequent, and they miss their support system of family and friends. You could call it being homesick. An instant fix is spending time in an environment that’s familiar, and interacting with people back home. Hence, the Starbucks.

La vida loca: the upside of living abroad

Living abroad for an extended period of time as, say, a student, an expatriate worker, or the spouse of either can be an enriching and life-changing experience. The same applies to immigrating. Both experiences give you a new outlook and plenty of learning opportunities. Dare we say they make you a more complete human being?

If you’re a Canadian starting your first expat assignment or studying abroad for the first time, you’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to discover new people, traditions and ways of working. Your kids will quickly become familiar with a new language and culture and open their mind. You’ll acquire intercultural competencies and become more adept at negotiating cultural differences – all valuable skills. And don’t forget the potential financial pros: better compensation, attractive perks and benefits for the whole family, and possibly a fast track to a promotion when you return.

If you’re an immigrant settling in Canada, part of your culture shock experience may be the realisation that people here talk about hockey quite a lot. And that it gets cold in winter, really cold. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. In return, and once you get over the culture shock, you will have peace, order and an approximation of good government in a country where life is, on the whole, not bad. Where good jobs can be had and the future holds near-unlimited potential.

The stages of culture shock

But let’s look at that downside of moving abroad: culture shock. You could define it as a pervasive feeling of disorientation when faced with a new and unfamiliar way of life. It’s generally understood to consist of four different stages.

  1. Expats first go through the honeymoon stage: everything is great. They love the newness of their new life, and find the unfamiliar exciting. Their involvement is superficial; somewhat like that of a tourist.
  2. This is followed by a period of anxiety and frustration as the newness wears off, and the initial excitement is replaced by confusion and feelings of isolation and inadequacy. In this phase, expats now focus primarily on the differences between the new culture and their home culture. They miss the support of the folks back home.
  3. During the adjustment stage, expats start to feel more comfortable and cultural cues become easier to read. They stop focussing on small details that are beyond their control, get their sense of humour back, and begin to learn about and enjoy the less superficial aspects of their new life.
  4. The final stage is acceptance and feeling at home. Expats who arrive at this stage take a balanced view of the foreign culture. They are able to be appreciative of some of its aspects and critical of others.

But what happens when your employer is transferring you back home after a couple of years abroad? Or, if you decide that the expat life is not for you after all? You should be aware that culture shock works both ways – on arrival in a new country as well as on returning home. More often than not, the reverse culture shock can be even more powerful. When you decide to go back to your country of origin, you will find that the society you left years ago will have evolved, and will sometimes have changed drastically. You may find yourself going through the four stages of culture shock all over again.

Don’t forget the impact on your finances

In this issue of Strategies, you’ll find helpful information about the financial aspects of a lifestyle that has an international component, whether it be working abroad as a Canadian, saving for retirement as an immigrant, minding critical tax issues as an American citizen living in Canada, and staying onside with regulatory requirements as a snowbird. Getting your new international life in order financially will help shorten the culture shock curve, and make it easier for you to start enjoying your life in a new country.

How to minimize the effects of culture shock

Matthew MacLachlan of Communicaid, a consultancy specializing in cross-cultural communication, lists seven strategies to minimize the effects of culture shock:

1. Avoid constant comparisons with home. It won’t help you to settle in.
2. Make friends with positive-minded people. Avoid people who are critical of your new home country.
3. Start a new hobby or pastime which isn’t possible back home.
4. Keep in regular contact with home, family and friends.
5. Share your own culture with your new friends and neighbours.
6. Communicate your feelings. Tell friends, colleagues and loved ones how you feel.
7. Travel and see new places that will make you appreciate your new home country. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – enjoy it!

Willem Lebegge, Contributing Editor
T.E. Wealth, Montreal


This article was published in T.E. Wealth’s Strategies newsletter, March 2018 edition. Read the full edition here.

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These articles are for general informational purposes only. Please obtain professional advice before taking any action based on this information. No endorsement or approval of any third parties or their advice, information, products or services should be implied by any references to third parties contained in any article. Trademarks cited in these articles are the respective properties of their owners.

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