It doesn’t matter what kind of international assignment you’re on, if you’re in a foreign country for several months there’s a predictable cycle of ups and downs that international assignees and their families tend to go through. What most of us have heard of is Culture Shock. And, although most of us want to avoid it—or at least minimize the shock part—we don’t really know what it is or how to reduce it.But minimizing Culture Shock in an expat assignment doesn’t have to be hard. What you need is knowledge of the entire expat adjustment cycle and insights into what you can do at earlier points in that cycle to influence the shock that inevitably comes.
What is the Expatriate Adjustment Cycle?
An international transfer is a major life event, presenting the same mix of excitement, stress, exhilaration and exhaustion that you may face during other periods of drastic change. It can take a toll, physically, emotionally and psychologically—and it usually does.
The typical phases of the expat adjustment cycle are Preparation, Honeymoon, Culture Shock, and Adaptation. At RW3, we also include Repatriation—an important yet often overlooked component of a successful international experience.
As you learn to understand these stages and the implications of the adjustment lifecycle, remember that each family member goes through them at a different rate and possibly experiences them in different ways.
The predeparture period is a time of mixed emotions. Usually, there is excitement at the prospect of starting a great adventure and experiencing a different country, culture, and lifestyle. This is sometimes tempered by the anxiety of moving into unfamiliar territory—literally and figuratively—and it is always accompanied by the flurry of activity inherent in moving from one country to another.
Very often, family roles change in an expat assignment—especially if the employee is expected to be productive quickly, leaving the partner to organize moving logistics. There’s the new house to settle into, a community to learn, possibly children to help, and all within a different culture. In addition, the partner may be changing jobs, too, or leaving a job they had at home. There’s a lot going on, and no one really knows what to expect next.
This is a very important time to prepare so your eventual adjustment can be easier.
What can you do? One of the best ways to prepare is to learn as much as possible about the new culture. It’s obvious, isn’t it? But when time is short and there are visas to arrange, packing to do and current life logistics to wind down, it’s too easy to think we’ll spend time later to learn about the new culture. Just do it! Indeed, it’s critical to continue learning once in the country, but doing some intercultural preparation beforehand will greatly enhance—and ease—your transition.)
Everything is new and exciting as you enter the Honeymoon phase of an expat assignment. You’re settling in, and too busy getting to know your new life to think about what you miss from your old life. These positive feelings of excitement and discovery can last several weeks. Different ways of doing things are enchanting and exotic, and you haven’t had time to find them frustrating. Indeed, you begin to think that all the stories you’ve heard about Culture Shock and depression are exaggerations.
What better time to start exploring? Start by getting involved with the local expat community. Meet other international people who may be a wonderful source of information, activities and friendships.
Now’s the time to stop thinking like a tourist and “engage” the local community as a fellow resident. Start taking public transportation instead of cabs. Eat at local restaurants, read local newspapers, shop at local markets.
And if appropriate, begin (or continue) language lessons. There is no better way to break through the barriers of an unfamiliar culture than with a few words of the local language. Look for opportunities to continue with your interests and hobbies, or find some new ones inspired by your new surroundings.
Now’s the time to do these things, which will help mitigate the dip that will inevitably come with the next phase: Culture Shock.
One of the most important things you can do is set some goals for your assignment. Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? What do you want to have learned before it’s time to go home? Focus on building a support system of local friends and activities. You know what your favorite stress relievers are; make a list of them and think about how you will carry them out.
Get yourself into a routine that’ll help you achieve your goals.
Once you emerge from the cocoon of the Honeymoon stage, the rosy hue fades and the reality of life in the new environment sets in. Culture Shock can include feelings of isolation, communication issues, and discomfort with the culture or local environment. All of a sudden, the charming differences seem annoying and tiring; the language differences become frustrating.
You start to miss aspects of your home life, your friends. You want a particular food, but you can’t find it. Or, the routine in the office is very different and, while you understand the reasons why, it becomes tiring to think through every cross-cultural situation. So many things need interpretation. Nothing comes easy.
And, you’re not a novelty anymore. While people are still friendly and hospitable, they’ve put away the red carpet and expect you to “settle in and get on with it.” All of a sudden, you’re terribly tired of trying so hard. Why does everything have to be so different and take so much effort?
We can all tolerate cultural differences for a few weeks—the length of an extended vacation. And psychologically, that’s what you’ve had so far. But now, weeks of unfamiliar stimuli begin to get under your skin. Culture Shock stings when you realize you’re going be here a while, and that all those differences you’ve been tolerating because they were so fascinating and exotic are now part of your daily life.
This is the hardest part of the expat adjustment cycle. It may result in homesickness and depression. It could manifest in physical ways, with symptoms of stress such as headaches, lack of energy and digestive problems.
Don’t be surprised if your partner or children are also irritable and unhappy. They could be dealing with their own Culture Shock.
It takes all your coping skills to navigate these murky waters. What can you do?
First, expect Culture Shock, and recognize it for what it is—whether you get it in month one or month six … or even both. Then, remind yourself you’re not alone. It’s a common experience among expat assignees and remember, it will come to an end. Generally, it lasts only a few weeks, although everyone’s experience is different.
Third, and most important, prepare for it. It’s very much a reaction—sometimes an overreaction—to the “romance” of the Honeymoon stage. That’s why we suggest you use the Honeymoon stage to get ready for the rest of your time abroad.
If you follow our advice and lay that ground work during the Honeymoon, you now have a routine, a set of goals and a whole list of planned activities ready and waiting to carry you through this difficult time. Use the channels you set up during the previous two stages.
See if you can identify a “cultural mentor”—either a local national or a fellow expat who can interpret some of the cultural nuances for you. That extra knowledge will make things seem less strange, which may speed your passage through the Culture Shock phase.
Several months into an expat assignment, the dramatic "ups and downs" start to diminish and assignees reach a "recovery plateau" in the adjustment cycle. This does not look or feel like the euphoric "high" of the Honeymoon period, nor is it exempt from some occasional backsliding. But this should be the most comfortable, productive phase of the assignment, when the family reaps the rewards for navigating the cultural and emotional challenges of the previous phase.
For families who have been on assignment for an extended period or on successive international assignments, the process of returning home can be as challenging and traumatic as the initial relocation. Of course, the danger is that everyone considers “going home” to be easy … and it’s not.
Children, in particular, may have spent a significant amount of their lives overseas—or may never have lived in the home country. People have changed. You have changed, and many of your old friends and colleagues will have limited interest in your adventures while you were away.
You’ll likely go through stages during Repatriation that are similar to the expat adjustment cycle.
So, during Repatriation, it’s a good idea to follow some of the suggestions you put into place when you first left your home country. The biggest difference is to start well ahead of time—months before you go back to your home country.
Every expat goes through this predictable adjustment cycle when they leave their home country and settle into another. But, with some planning and active engagement, your international experience will be one of the great adventures of your life.