Why we experience culture shock

Expatriation can be one of the most exciting periods of your life, but also one the most challenging. Have you heard of the expat curve or the stages of acculturation? Did you experience culture shock after moving abroad or re-entry shock when you returned back home?
Take a look at the following graphic that depicts the different stages of acculturation. I also recommend this short and fun video by the LIVING INSTITUTE which wonderfully explains the expat curve that many expats have experienced. It is of course a different curve for every individual, but it is worth reflecting on your own experience and a relief to be reassured, that it is absolutely normal and ok to have these ups and downs. It is my job as an intercultural trainer and coach to bring awareness to these phases so that you are better prepared for your expat adventure. Sometimes, expats struggle with a long-lasting culture shock or get stuck along the way. This is when expat coaching can make all the difference.
The Expat Curve

But why do we have these painful culture shocks?

Take a look at the six most common causes for culture shock. Which of the 6 areas has affected you most? How did you overcome them? What was your coping strategy? As a general rule, the larger the cultural distance – meaning the extent of differences in values and communication styles between the two cultures – the bigger the shock. But it can also hit you, when you expect two cultures to be more similar than they actually are. We experience a cognitive dissonance when our values and beliefs clash with those of the new culture. This understandibly causes psychological stress.

What helps? Coping strategies for culture shock and adaptation difficulties:

  • don’t panic, nearly everyone has some form of culture shock – it‘s absolutely normal!
  • stay in touch with your support network (family and friends)
  • make new contacts to locals and other expats
  • get out and explore your new city and country
  • get involved, join a club, practice your hobbies
  • always expect the unexpected
  • talk with other expats and get rid of that exasperation
  • cultivate your favorite customs from home (cook favorite dish, etc.)
  • do not underestimate the climatic adjustment
  • have faith and give yourself time

Remind yourself of all the benefits of your journey:

  • deeper insights into the culture, broadened horizon and intercultural competence
  • personal development: increased self-esteem, more optimistic attitude, flexibility, more serenity and resilience
  • new friends
  • travel, experiences and adventures
  • linguistic proficiency

As your intercultural trainer and coach, my aim is to raise awareness that culture shock is real and why it happens. I work with my clients to identify the areas that are causing distress and help them develop healthy coping strategies to move through this phase with more ease and grace. Check out this YouTube video where I share my own culture shock and coping strategy around punctuality in Chile.

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