What Is Culture Shock?
Planning your move can be an all-consuming experience that can last many months or even years. It will have caused great excitement, great worry and stress.
As the planned date of departure draws ever closer, so the conflicting emotions are heightened. The full realisation that you are leaving work, family and friends behind for good begins to hit.
At this stage though, you will still be pushed on by the excitement and sense of adventure that made you want to move abroad in the first place.Your first night abroad will feel strange, perhaps compounded by tiredness and jet lag. The first few days will be disorientating but fun as your explore your new home and try to begin to make sense of the geography, sights, language and local customs.
You will be enjoying the sense of adventure and escape, taking in all the delights of your new surroundings with a determination to get the very best out of it all. If you have arrived in summer from a UK winter, the sun will brighten your temperament and your move will suddenly seem completely vindicated.
It is in these early stages of your move abroad that a phenomenon known as Culture Shock will begin to develop. It can, in many cases, be a deadly blow to the overall chances of success for your move abroad. It is definitely something you should be both aware of and have, as far as possible, contingency plans for.
Culture shock can be characterised as the physical and emotional adjustment to your move abroad. Broadly, it has two outcomes. The first is your successful adjustment to your new life abroad where you assimilate into your new country and begin to enjoy the new lifestyle you have dreamed of. It does not preclude a rejection of your previous life in the UK and, undoubtedly, you will continue to miss family, friends and certain things about your previous life.
However, on balance, you will feel that the move abroad has been vindicated and you look forward to building on your early success in adjusting to a new life by building a greater emotional, physical and financial commitment to your new home.
The use of the word home will mark an important tipping point in this process. Once you come to regard your new country as home, rather than the UK, and feel comfortable abroad, you can say with some degree of certainty that your move has been a success.
However, the other outcome is much less attractive and can have significant impact on your long-term happiness and financial security. For a variety of reasons, you may never settle in your adoptive country; you always end up feeling like a foreigner and the pull of ties back in the UK proves simply too great.
No matter what the eventual outcome, everyone who moves abroad ‘suffers’ something that can be called Culture Shock. No matter how well travelled you are or how worldly-wise you feel, nothing can prepare you for that moment and the extent to which it will become a pivotal moment will be, in part, a function of how well prepared you are.
Culture shock is not the same thing as homesickness. It is more pervasive and potentially dangerous. Many expats move to a new country filled with high hopes and singularly determined to make the move succeed. However, many expats still end up returning home, unable to adjust and settle.
When moving abroad it is much easier to plan for the physical, practical aspects of the move than it is to prepare yourself mentally for such a move. Unless you have lived in another country before it is very difficult to know what to expect. You may think that you will really miss having a drink in the pub but in fact, you find yourself fantasising about marmite or reading your favourite Sunday paper.
Being prepared is vital and involves a sensible approach to dealing with the symptoms and effects of culture shock. It won’t happen in isolation to you; all members of your family will go through it, almost certainly at different times and with different reactions.
It will create tension within your family as some members may well feel it acutely and want to return to the UK whilst others adapt, flourish and want to stay. So what are the signs to look out for? How can you prepare both yourself and your family to minimise the impact?
Culture shock can broadly be split into five different phases.
1. The Romance or Honeymoon phase
2. The Withdrawal or Rejection phase
3. The Adjustment or Integration phase
4. The Acceptance or Approval phase
5. The Reverse Culture Shock or Native Alienation phase
It is important to remember that, no matter how well prepared or mentally strong you and your family are, you will all undergo emotions that will test your resolve, your togetherness and your commitment to your move abroad.
The Romance or Honeymoon phase
As the name may suggest, this phase is one that generally feels best and may well mark the high point of your experience. Everything is fresh and exciting and the thrill of exploring local markets, hidden beaches, historic towns and ethnic restaurants is much more than the sense of adventure you get when you visit somewhere on holiday.
You know that this is now your home; you start learning your way around with a different purpose in mind. Rather than working out the shortest route from beach to hotel to bar to restaurant, you begin to navigate by different references. The local market or supermarket, the main road into town, the school route, the nearest doctor or hospital, proximity to work and the cost of local housing all become factors to take into account.
Most people give themselves a ‘holiday’ when they first emigrate and it is a very useful thing to do. However, it will still feel unlike any holiday you have ever had. It may not hit you immediately but that one-way flight can only mean one thing – you are here to stay!
Even ostensibly familiar countries like Australia, Canada or New Zealand have many different aspects that can be thrilling to explore. Where things are different from the UK, they are usually regarded as positive in this phase and help to create a sense of excitement and novelty that can last for many months.
The Withdrawal or Rejection phase
Usually, most holiday romances come to an end. The usual method is for one person to return home, clinging to fond memories and wistful thoughts of what might have been. In this phase however, the spell isn’t broken by a return home. It is continued long past the normal shelf life of such romances. What was once exciting and interesting can become irritating and frustrating.
Long hot summers in the UK often amount to no more than 2 or 3 weeks of warm weather. Abroad, hot summers can often mean month after month of searing heat with no respite. Living permanently with air-conditioning, or worse no air-conditioning, can be unpleasant, especially if you have young children. Also, despite the fact that the weather seems to be everyones favourite topic of conversation in the UK, it is actually very benign. Tempered by the Gulf stream, there are few extremes of heat or cold, droughts are rare, damaging natural events such as earthquakes are unknown. In short, Brits are unprepared for weather, despite the fact that we talk about it the whole time.
It can be tought to adapt to long hot summers or, if you are planning on moving to Canada, long, snowy winters. Acclimatising can be tough and can contribute to feelings of alienation and discontent.
Whilst on holiday, busy restaurants, bars and beaches can add to the buzz and excitement but, after a while, hordes of tourists get in the way of you conducting your new working life. Struggling with the language on a menu in a restaurant may seem funny initially but what happens when you need help to organise a GP or a dentist’s visit for your children and you can’t make yourself understood?
The first family birthday or major event that you miss, such as a wedding will also hit you hard. The realisation that everyone you know and love is getting together and having fun in your absence can lead to growing frustration and resentment. This can be exacerbated if you are struggling with matters such as finding work, setting up a business or trying to settle your children into school.
A common time for this phase to occur is at the end of the local tourist season. A place that can seem buzzing and lively in the peak season can, within the space of a few weeks, come to resemble a ghost town. All the bars and restaurants catering to the tourists suddenly shut up shop and the locals seem to go into hibernation.
The winter months can stretch before you often with a marked change in the climate. Those months of wearing shorts and T-shirts seem like distant memories as you shiver in your house using expensive air-conditioning to keep warm. In effect what is happening is that you are conducting a reality check. You are examining, at first-hand, what your new home offers you in the way of employment, lifestyle and friendships. This appraisal is taking place at a time when, emotionally, you are at your most vulnerable.
Having left behind family, friends, a good job and familiarity with everything around you, that void has yet to be filled with ‘new country’ substitutes. It is in this phase that the move may begin to look like a mistake.
You will be questioning why you made the move in a much more critical light. You will have intimate first-hand knowledge of what life is actually like in your new country that research simply couldn’t tell you before you got on that plane.
Probably more importantly, you will be now be able to understand how you and your family have adapted to the move for real. Until you actually do something it is very difficult to predict how you will react.
Have you embraced the change and given the move your best shot or has it left you with a sinking feeling as it perhaps begins to dawn on you that you may have made a mistake?
Perhaps you will have made your first trip home and will have seen with fresh eyes exactly how much you have left behind. This will be especially true if you are struggling to find work or to get your new business off the ground. Maybe your partner has a quite radically different take on your move and perhaps this is causing tension just when unity is required to get through this very difficult stage.
All these conflicting emotions will mark the low point of your move abroad. This point can be critical as it may mark a pivot around which you will decide where your future lies. If you choose to keep an open mind, remain in your new home and try harder to make things work, it can eventually lead into the sunlit uplands of a full and happy adjustment to your new life abroad.
If the little things begin to get you down and they start to make you even more critical of your new home and increase the feelings of not belonging and isolation and sense of loss for what you have left behind, then you may well find the lure of a move back to the UK hard to resist. What is required now is perseverance and an open mind to help you move on to the next stage.
The Adjustment or Integration phase
When those first few, halting, words from the phrase book transform themselves into the beginnings of confident, semi-fluent conversations with strangers, then your whole experience of life and your view of your new country can change. When the children settle and begin to enjoy life with new friends, and work or your new business begin to flourish, then some of the pressures begin to lift.
This phase marks the start of your real commitment to your move. Whilst you may have pulled up many, if not all, of your roots to make the move abroad, they probably haven’t been placed down in your new country yet. It is a very natural human emotion to want to belong. Humans are essentially social animals and usually feel better and more secure when they belong to a ‘tribe’ or community. Growing up in a country confers membership of that ‘tribe’ as well as the tacit understanding of the social norms and rules.
Moving abroad to a new country means that, initially at least, you no longer belong to any particular tribe or community. Often this manifests itself in the way that expat communities tend to be inward looking and cling together. Often, the only thing you may have in common with fellow expats is a shared language and a common country of birth.
People who, back in the UK, you would be highly unlikely to want to even associate with can become part of a tight, intimate social circle. It is almost like strangers clinging to a piece of driftwood together in the sea.
In the adjustment or integration phase, you begin to feel comfortable taking roots that have been dug up from the UK and planting them slowly into your new country. As your knowledge of your adoptive home deepens, so you can come to appreciate that what were just differences in the beginning can, in fact, be better ways of doing things.
You may well find they are more in tune to your (new) way of thinking. It is often marked by a significant decrease in the number of times you say “well, back at home we do it this way……”. You may actually begin to think more like a ‘native’ than you thought possible. As your network of friends and acquaintances develops amongst the locals, you may well find that you no longer are reliant on or even seek the company of other expats. You no longer feel completely like a foreigner, like an outsider.
The Acceptance or Approval phase
It may take a few months or even a few years but, if you make it through the adjustment or integration phase, the odds on a successful move are improved considerably. By putting down roots in your new country, you are showing a strong level of commitment that will grow further with time. It takes time to begin to appreciate how life in a different country can be truly better rather than just different.
Once your understanding of your new country improves, so too does your acceptance to its ways and customs. Undoubtedly, things will continue to irritate. The shops shutting at lunchtime for the afternoon siesta will be inconvenient but you will find your rhythm and way of fitting your life around the customs and habits of your new home.
On a trip back to the UK, when you catch up with family and friends, it will suddenly dawn on you that, despite the separation and ongoing pain from your family that your move abroad has brought, you now regard your new country as home. When your children say they miss their new friends, when you look forward to getting back to work or to seeing your new friends, then you will know that you have made a successful transition to your new life.
With the passage of time, you will drift apart from your old friends and find that, increasingly, you have less and less in common. You will regard yourself as adventurous, entrepreneurial and courageous and will probably come to regard even close former friends as stuck in a rut, dull and lacking in drive and effort to change or improve their lives.
Your mental commitment to staying the course and remaining in your new country may well be almost complete. You won’t like everything about your new country but, as can be seen in the comments pages of newspaper columns every day, you can become quite evangelical about the advantages of your new home over the UK.
You may come to be quite critical of aspects of your former life or perceived prevailing attitudes and customs back in the UK. Your move abroad has been a success!
However, what if things don’t work out well? What if, having tried to give your move your best shot you feel that you and your family simply can’t settle away from the UK? What if, despite thoroughly enjoying your new life, you simply can’t make the financial side of the move work? If you move back to the UK whether ‘voluntarily’ or because you are ‘pushed’, you run the risk of undergoing what is called Reverse Culture Shock.
The Reverse Culture Shock or Native Alienation phase
It may seem ridiculous to suggest that you will find moving back to the UK difficult to adjust to. You have perfect knowledge of the language, culture, system, geography and social rules. Wrong!
To some extent it will depend on how long you lived abroad but what you will come to realise is that, whilst the UK hasn’t really changed at all, you have. You have opened your eyes to the world at large, taken risks, tried and experienced new things way beyond the comprehension or interest of the vast majority of other people.
It is a little bit like showing people your holiday snaps. You will show a particular picture of a place that was special to you, start a story or anecdote and before you have had a chance to really get going, the other person starts to tell you about their friend’s experience there or their own trip to somewhere else entirely.
It can be a frustrating experience wanting to share your great adventure with close friends and family and finding there is no real interest in listening to what you have to say. It can also hit you hard when you recognise that your values and attitudes have changed quite dramatically and that these now make you feel alienated from those people who were closest to you. You have changed and broadened your horizons but others haven’t.
One of the worst aspects of moving home can be the financial situation you find yourself in. If your business has failed abroad and you return to the UK with very little in the way of capital, it can be extremely hard to get back on the ladder. Finding work can be a major issue as, if you have been abroad for a few years, your skills in your former job may well be out of date or redundant.
Employers will want to understand how you have filled the last few years and, unless your work or business abroad was directly relevant to the job you are seeking in the UK, it will be very difficult to convince them to take you on. You may well feel that your all round experience in running your own business could make you a valuable employee as you will have learned skills that a lot of businesses could use but employers will be generally unwilling to take a risk on an employee without direct, recent experience.
Even the prospect of going back to work for an employer may prove difficult, especially if you have got used to the rhythm and balance of being your own boss, juggling work and family life. Finding yourself in a worse financial position than when you left the UK will be a very difficult situation to face.
Dealing with mundanity will also be a potential issue for returnees. Once you have caught up with friends and family, the same old routine will seem dull and boring. You may have fantasised about being able to walk into a supermarket and buy marmite or tinned custard or any number of commonly available items that just aren’t sold in many other countries around the world but the novelty will soon wear off.
Understanding road signs, local television and conversations in the street can seem like such a treat after a long time away but they will not make up for the voidyou will be feeling. There will be no new discoveries of places or foods or festivals to delight you, the summers won’t be long and hot with many happy family hours spent on the beach. You may well find that the UK suddenly feels very small, constricted, and hidebound by rules and regulations.
Of course, many people feel relief and happiness on their return, whatever the circumstances but everyone will feel that a big adventure, a life-changing chapter in their life has closed and that can’t help but be, at the very least, a cause for reflection about what experience you have gained of the wider world.
More importantly, it will have made you much more self-aware about your own personal strengths and weaknesses and will have stretched your understanding of yourself to its limits.
What Can Be Done To Overcome Culture Shock?
Everyone who moves abroad, even to countries that, at first glance, seem to have a significant overlap in history, culture and language, will experience culture shock. It is a natural phenomenon and marks part of the development and adaptation process that will form the backdrop to everyone’s move abroad. It will be felt in different ways and at different times by all the members of your family. It will cause heartache, emotional turmoil, arguments, guilt, blame and frustration. The major symptoms include depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and feelings of helplessness.
It is also worth mentioning that the term implies that it is some sudden event that will catch you unawares or ‘shock’ you. This is not true as is it is a well-known phenomenon that has even been the subject of academic study. The concept was first formulated by the anthropologist Kalervo Odberg who defined it as the psychological disorientation experienced by people who suddenly enter radically different cultural environments to live and work.
Today’s global communications have changed our access to and our view of the world in the intervening 50 years or so. Our knowledge of the world, through television and the internet is dramatically greater and as air travel has become affordable for the masses, so our ability and willingness to explore our world has increased exponentially.
As well as this, people have become much more used to contact with ‘foreigners’ in their own lives. Successive waves of immigration have changed the face of the UK to a degree unimaginable 50 years ago. All this has made the degree to which people suffer from culture shock, in the original sense of the phrase, probably diminished.
In the past, most migration was borne of economic necessity. Whilst culture shock was undoubtedly present in those migrants, they were, in general, moving to seek the chance of a better life away from the often appalling conditions they suffered at home.
Today’s migration is probably more often to do with the dream of seeking a ‘better lifestyle’ than to do with the desire to improve the living standards of one’s family. Indeed, in today’s world, many migrants probably happily ‘trade-down’ in terms of their economic requirements and expectations in order to fulfil a deep-seated need to find a more balanced, happier existence.
In these circumstances, the likelihood of disappointment is, in all probability, greater as the search for a more fulfilling lifestyle is a more personal, ephemeral target that may not actually be achievable. Moving from abject poverty with no work, no prospect of work and the real threat of starvation to dreadful conditions where at least some form of work keeps your head above water can be seen as a tangible improvement.
The move from a comfortable house with a good steady income to a small olive farm in Tuscany where the crop is marginal in terms of providing sufficient income to live on is much more subjective in determining the success of the move or not.
Although there are certain things you can do, before you actually move abroad to plan to minimise the effects of culture shock, it will undoubtedly affect you and your family and, in consequence, the possible success or failure of the move. As moving abroad is such an enormous undertaking, full of opportunity and risk, it is not one to undertake lightly or in an ill-considered manner.
This article is an attempt to point out some of the common pitfalls that hit new emigrants and to offer advice and tips about the best way to deal with them. Forewarned is forearmed!
It is obvious that, in order to minimise the potential impact of culture shock on you and your family, the preparation done before departure is vital. The goal is to shorten the amount of time that it takes to adapt to your new surroundings and host ‘culture’ in order to make the transition as smooth as possible. It is actually quite a difficult thing to achieve.
The decision to move can be an agonising one that may take many months to finalise. There will be discussions and arguments as well as a considerable amount of soul searching. If children are involved, guilt and uncertainty about how they will adapt will be a powerful influences.
Once the decision to move has been taken, a whole new dynamic takes over. Where and when become the focal point and the practical issues begin to dominate your mind. Thinking about the best way to minimise the impact of something which, in all probability, you are not even aware will be a major factor is not very likely.
It can be argued, however, that mental preparation is as important as the practical considerations in planning your move. Indeed, with a strong mental preparedness for the challenges and hurdles to be faced, the likelihood of success with your move is actually higher.
Preparation for your move
It may be obvious but finding out as much as possible about your prospective new home is absolutely vital. Bear in mind that travel brochures and many other guides will give you the positive aspects of life in that country. Every country has attractions and aspects of life that seem compelling and exciting.
What is harder to find out is the downside of life in that country. Not just for the local population but for expats living there. There are a number of websites that expats from various countries use to highlight issues and discuss the lifestyle for expats in many different countries around the world. It is worth bearing in mind that those who contribute to these forums may well ’have an axe to grind’ but it is always constructive to listen to other peoples negative comments about a particular place.
It won’t necessarily give you a complete picture but it will give you an insight into some of the issues that are likely to arise. Post questions, seek advice, get an understanding of the laws, rules and regulations, see what other economic and social research has been done to build as comprehensive picture as possible of the economy, social structure and lifestyle you can expect.
It is highly unlikely that you will choose to move abroad to another country without having visited it first, probably several times. However, visiting as a tourist is very different to that as a resident. If you plan a viewing trip, make sure it encompasses all the aspects of life that will affect you. Ask a local, reputable estate agent to give you an overview of the residential areas that will be of interest to you.
Understanding the nature and location of local schools and health care will help reduce the natural level of stress and concern you may have about the practical issues involved in moving abroad. In summary, if you can plan and organise as much of the practical arrangements as possible, you will have a less stressful few months and can begin to relax and enjoy your move sooner.
Obviously Australia, Canada and New Zealand are English-speaking countries (though Canada has a large French-speaking community) but if you are moving to a country where English is not widely spoken then learning the local language is probably the single most useful thing that can be done prior to a move abroad.
There is no doubt that having at least an understanding of the local language on arrival will stand you in very good stead. You will be able to hit the ground runningin terms of communicating with the local people and will have a great head start when it comes to dealing with the practical issues needed to sort out housing, schooling, company set up, employment etc. There are many home learning courses, books, college courses and even residential courses to help you prepare.
Learning a language is never easy, especially as you get older, but it is worth taking time to persevere and put in as much time and effort as possible – it will pay ample dividends in those first few months abroad.
This is not something that is necessarily easy to switch on or off. It will depend to some extent on the mix of reasons that have led you to seek a move abroad. If you are being ‘pulled’ by an attraction to a different lifestyle in an exciting new culture, you will be in a better mental state of mind to adjust to the move.
However, if you are looking to leave the UK through disillusionment with life in the UK and lack of opportunity, then you may not be in the best frame of mind to grapple with the difficulties that inevitably come with a move abroad. You will need to understand what your strengths are and also make sure that your expectations for the move are not overreaching and unrealistic.
Making sure that all members of your family are clear about the type of things they may expect to find will also help enormously. Moving abroad with kids(see Moving Abroad with Kids) is a nerve-wracking business and it is natural, as a parent, to want to do everything possible.
A positive attitude can also manifest itself in an enthusiasm to take part in the new culture. Becoming a visible member of the community by taking part in local festivals, helping out your neighbours, being seen at the local market and joining local clubs and societies will help build your local visibility, broaden your social horizons and increase you knowledge and understanding of the culture you have moved to. If there is an expat community close by, use them as a ready source of friends but also, importantly, as a source of local knowledge about how local customs and bureaucracy work.
For long term integration into the local culture, it is important not to bury yourself in an expat lifestyle where you never truly learn about and understand what the local culture offers you.
Culture Shock when Moving Abroad
Emigrating to a new country is a huge step. On your own it would be stressful and risky. If you are moving your family, it becomes a whole lot more tricky. There are many wonderful experiences to be gained and it offers a unique opportunity to change your life radically. It can offer a better life, whether it is simply a question of money or opportunity. It can help you obtain a better life balance, allowing you to step away from the rat race and re-focus on your family.
However, even moving from one town to another in your home country can involve major upheaval, potentially leaving behind a close support group of family and friends and a sense of belonging. Moving abroad will lead to a huge change in your life. It is therefore vital to be honest with yourself and your family. Do you like adventure and new experiences? Are you flexible and adaptable? Are you tolerant and inquisitive? Are you independent and self-sufficient? Do you have skills and resources to fall back on if things don’t work out?
Culture shock is the inevitable result of moving to a new country, no matter how similar it appears to home. If you can learn to relax and enjoy your new country, come to think of it as home and can truly make the best of the new opportunities that arise, then culture shock can eventually be a positive, transitional experience.
Being honest with yourself and with your family and friends about what you are hoping to get out of your move abroad will greatly improve the chances of making your new life a success.