‘Culture shock’ is a term used with different meanings. However, when used in relation to expat relocation, it usually refers to a process of coming to understand and adapt to cultural differences manifested in daily life through interaction and/or situations. It is a process that affects people of all walks of life to a more or lesser extent. Language teachers, managers, sportsmen, spouses and children; each will end up dealing with it in the course of international relocation. It is important to learn to recognize it and how it affects you so as to avoid or minimize the potential negative side-effects of the relocation.
Relocation abroad is a huge step. The changes and contrasts in the simple things such as the language, food, TV, weather, shopping and socializing are but a small part of the overall relocation process and associated culture shock. The more deeper differences in customs, mentality, culture and world view as well as interpersonal interaction that have a more profound effect.
Experts have claim that there are stages of culture shock:
- Stimulation: the first stage of relocation is commonly filled with hope and excitement. A new world is opening up. The ‘culture shock’ is less prevalent and replaced by a positive perspective and enthusiasm. You are in the discovery stage. Interaction with the host culture is primarily passive. In general and speaking from experience it all feels like a holiday or outing still.
- Culture Shock: people start to interact with the host culture actively; through work and in day to day circumstances. The differences in behavior combined with the stress of adapting to a new daily routine shows signs of dislike and criticism of the host culture. Symptoms of culture shock start to appear: homesickness, boredom, weariness, irritability and even hostility towards the host culture. This is sometimes described together with the previous stage as the settling-in period which can last longer or shorter, depending on the person involved.
- Adjustment: after settling-in, an understanding and empathy with the host culture starts to develop. People feel more comfortable with their routines and surroundings. A working knowledge of the language or slang starts sliding into daily life.
- Enthusiasm: the host country becomes ‘home’. The effects of culture shock lessen as a genuine enjoyment and appreciation of the new location develops. Elements of the host culture’s behaviors and mentality are adopted/integrated and rather than to criticize, certain areas of the host culture are preferred to the native culture.
Prior to relocation, it is important for individuals, couples and families to learn as much about the new host country as possible. I speak from experience when I say that this is one of the most important aspects I overlooked myself when moving from the Netherlands to New Zealand. If this is not done through a relocation briefing, then personal research is a requirement. Try to find out as much as possible about people, culture, social norms, work ethics, religions, language, food, entertainment and accommodation. Preparation goes a long way!
Too often expats are selected in a hasty response to the need to fill a new or unexpected position abroad. While the selection process should fall into the domain of a well-informed intercultural trainer or human resource professional, more often than not it is senior management deciding who to send, and tending to choose the most technically competent candidates. However, the qualities that
make candidates a success at the home front will not necessarily make them an international success. Relatively high failure rates exists at all corporate levels. Studies of failure rates vary between grossly 15 to 50 percent of failed expat assignements leading to early returns.
In the next part we will have a closer look at some of the factors that lead to these expat assignment failures.