The truth about culture shock that no one tells about

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If you listen to most of the experts and read a few books about moving abroad, you will quickly learn that the experience the expat culture shock is "sponsored" be the letter "U."

This how it is described.

Great. But have you ever wondered if this really relates to your life?

Because most of the foreigners I talked to recently think this is a terrible simplification and has only a slight resemblance to their expat culture chock.

So first, let's focus on the U shape. The assumed phases of culture shock look like this: after arriving in the host county there is a moment of euphoria and delight, known as the honeymoon phase or the tourist phase (“Oh, how wonderful it is in America! The Americans have such open minds. They are so tolerant and innovative!”). This enchantment does not last long and a black hole of despair and maladjustment appears instead (“I never thought Americans could be so different than I am. How come you have to drive everywhere, look for parking for hours and then, there's the American food... I will never feel at home here”). Soon we start the upward climb again. After some time of gradual adjustment to the new reality, acceptance follows.

The problem is that most people, when describing their mental state during their phases of culture shock, see the situation differently.

I heard a lot of stories about expat culture shock and adaptation. And you know what? Each foreigner gave me a different letter/sign to describe the process. Here's a few:

1) The letter L, instead of the upside-down “U.”

My friend's employee, after moving across the pond, was at first delighted with everything. He was surrounded by educated and innovative people, and had access to unlimited possibilities in the technology industry. He could take an advantage of opportunities offered only to the best and brightest, including the option to shop at organic food stores almost for free! A fairy-tale came true. Until one day he turned up at work forlorn and could not shake his depression. He felt inadequate among all this. He admitted that he did not have the strength to compete with thousands of people from all over the world. That he felt like he is suffocating in the American plywood houses, cars, malls. Instead of working he looked at the Facebook profiles of his home friends. And he started to fall ill (from stress).

2) An underscore symbol, i.e., __, for someone who came as a trailing a spouse.

Unlike his spouse, this individual did not have a USA work permit. But she left her home country anyway, and moved for the duration of her husband's contract. She complained and and complained and complained. And suffered from the very beginning. She grew bored of watching TV, but was too apprehensive to find other forms of entertainment. The prospect of leaving the house and taking the highway to the grocery store, museum, or park was too frightening. In the end all things American drove her mad. Consequently, the employed husband had to listen to his loved one’s incessant rants. No one was happy. (Managing trailing spouses during a contract is in fact a significant problem. International companies that send people abroad have been dealing with this issue for years).

3) A slash, i.e., /

When someone was satisfied from the beginning, soaked up all the new, good things in her life, did not mind the things that did not work out, tried to adjust and find her inner peace, and just kept growing.

So when does the U model of expat culture shock come from?

In the 1950s, Sverre Lysgaard, a sociology professor at Oslo University, presented it for the first time. He sought to use it to describe the cultural adaptation process among immigrants. But it was a model rather than a result of empirical research. Later, a number of researchers created similar models, but when confronted with experiences of actual emigrants, those models turned out to not be very true.

In some studies only 10% of the respondents confirmed they easily moved through the “U” phases of culture shock!

The explanation lies in our individual traits, our personality, and the new environment.

Colleen Ward, Stephen Bochner, and Adrian Furnham, the authors of The Psychology of Culture Shock explain that each experience is tailored to the individual.

So the way we manage culture shock depends on a number of factors, such as:

  • how different is the new culture from your home country’s;
  • your familiarity with the language;
  • your mentality;
  • your openness to new experiences;
  • your previous experience with foreign travel;
  • the level of tolerance and also the level of xenophobia in your new country;
  • support from friends and relatives at home and in the host country;
  • whether you have a defined role to perform in the new place;
  • and your level of independence.

What are your experiences? How do you cope? And what letter are you?

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