Tips for dealing with Culture Shock.

by Ruth Friedman

Culture shock and how to deal with it.

Culture Shock is the stress reaction that often accompanies an international relocation. It arises because many of the unwritten codes, assumptions, and expectations are not the same as they are back home. This can be stressful, even if you are not aware of what is happening.

The good news is that experiencing culture shock is completely normal. Almost everyone goes through it when they move to a different country. It applies no matter how many times you have relocated before, and it is part of your integration process. Having a frame of reference for what’s happening is always a good strategy, as it helps to normalize the experience.

It can arise when you least expect it. You might expect to go through culture shock when you move from the USA to China because everyone knows that these cultures are very different. You might be more surprised to have culture shock while moving from Belgium to the Netherlands or between the USA and Canada because those cultures are so similar. The small differences can also be as disorienting, or even more so than the larger ones when it comes to crossing cultures.

Culture shock is a kind of stress. The way in which you react to culture shock is the same as the way in which you react to other kinds of stress in your life. If you are someone that stops eating when under stress and you lose your appetite in the first weeks of your assignment, this might be a symptom of culture shock. It might be the same for your sleep patterns or the other ways in which you would react under stress.

How to ease the impact of culture shock.

Following are a few tips that have worked well for my clients

1. Stop complaining.

Many expats love complaining. Unfortunately, thinking about the things that are not as good as back home, only leaves you feeling miserable. You will be wishing you were on the next plane home. Complaining is a natural response when faced with challenging situations. Our brains are wired that way, and so we notice more negative things than positive.

Some people say they love complaining and that it helps them if they vent. They state that they feel better after complaining. The reality is that once you start complaining you tend to find other things to complain about. It can be a downward spiral until you go and do something else.

If you are one of those people that love to complain, and you find it difficult to stop, then make sure you only complain to other expats. Ideally, only to members of your immediate family. You can even make a game out of it. Allow your Family Complaints Department to be open only with very restricted office hours!

2. Be grateful to deal with culture shock.

Even if you are having a tough time settling into your new home and new office, there is always so much to be grateful for. What a fantastic opportunity you have to visit this new and interesting country. There are so many exciting new things to discover: new foods, new languages, new friends, etc. There is always so much positive to be found, even in challenging situations. Sometimes you have to look hard for it and then decide to put your attention there.

When I work with my clients I often encourage them to do a gratitude journal. You can write in a notebook or on a blog about all the things for which you are grateful. Then, when you are having a tough time you can go back and look through all the things that are going great in your life. It’s almost guaranteed to shift your mood and help the culture shock.

3. Savoring. 

Ever had one of those really good Belgian chocolates? Think about when you eat it as slowly as possible and you try to make it last as long as possible. You let all the tastes mingle in your mouth, and you really savor it. Savoring is like that but you can do it with a lot more than chocolate!

Here is an example: I am sitting in my office. It is a busy day and I have a lot to do. I am taking a moment to notice that the sun is shining. It is glistening as it reflects on the frosty grass. Then, I notice my breathing as I watch the traffic outside. After that, I begin to notice how I feel in my body; there is a sense of expansiveness and calmness. I take it all in. For savoring to work at its best, you need to create a visceral memory as well as a mental one.

4. Recall happy memories to overcome culture shock. 

Think of happy memories, like the ones you have been savoring! Your body doesn’t actually know the difference between something that is happening in-the-moment and a memory of the event. This is not about pushing away your challenges. It’s about making more space and allowing in a positive moment as well as the challenge. You can combat culture shock by resourcing yourself in this way. Allow yourself to connect to positive moments, and you can allow both the positive memory to be there as well as the challenging situation.

5. Do something you love every day to counteract culture shock.

This can be a simple thing that doesn’t have to take much time. For myself, I love to sing and I usually sing in the morning in the shower. It doesn’t actually take any time at all and I feel better for doing it. What’s important is that the thing you do is something that gives you a lot of pleasure. Here are some examples: physical activity, playing a musical instrument, reading a bit of your novel, or connecting with someone you love. It could be planned in as daily quality time with your family. That’s a given if you have to travel a lot. The point about the activity is that it should be something you REALLY enjoy.

6. Bring something from home that you love. 

When I moved to Belgium (from the UK) I came with my big jar of Marmite and my proper English tea! It gave me something familiar from home. However, it wasn’t exactly the same as back home because the water is different in Belgium, but it did give me a sense of comfort by having something from home with me. I still bring tea back to Belgium after visiting the UK. The selection there is much wider, and my Belgian friends are always curious to see what I brought back with me this time!

7. Be kind to yourself.

This might sound self-indulgent, but it’s not!

You might be feeling that there are many things that you have to take care of and you bulldoze through everything. There may be times when you need to do just that. Even in the face of this, you can not still be kind to yourself. You can always find small moments for yourself in the midst of everything that is demanding your attention.

If you think that you don’t have time, that is simply not true. The trick is to keep the moments very short. When you are kind to yourself and pay attention to your own needs you will have more resources and you will take better care of yourself. You will be able to help other people, you will have more goodwill, and you will also have more energy for your work. That’s got to be a good thing!


About the trainer and coach:

Ruth Friedman is an experienced trainer and coach with strong communication skills and a track record of delivering well-received, innovative programs. She specializes in intercultural understanding, diversity, inclusion, and professional development. Learn more about Ruth here.

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