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What is Culture Shock and How Does it Affect Expats?

Home Blog What is Culture Shock and How Does it Affect Expats?

Sharon Clarkson

Medical Specialist

All new expats have one thing in common: they’ll experience culture shock and adjustment at some point of their relocation process. Moving overseas can be a thrilling experience: you can expect to find yourself exploring unfamiliar territory, meeting new people and trying different things. However, it can be a little bit overwhelming, and you may feel stressed.

So what is culture shock and how can you move beyond it to settle into your new life? Let’s take a closer look at definition and stages of culture shock for expats. We will also share some top tips for expats on how to prepare for culture shock and learn to thrive in your new country quicker. Remember: culture shock is a very normal part of moving somewhere new. Read our full guide for dos and don’ts for culture shock as an expat and learn how to handle it and make the most of your move abroad.

Try to prepare for culture shock before you move abroad using tips from our guide on relocating with kids / GETTY IMAGES

What is culture shock and how does it affect expats?

Culture shock is used to describe how you might feel when moving to a new country. It applies to people moving abroad for any reason – whether it’s for work, study or retirement. Although culture shock can be challenging, there are many ways to mitigate its effects. It can help to understand that culture shock is completely normal and that it’s something that every expat goes through to some degree.

Culture shock is some sort of adjustment you might feel when you are subject to a new way of living and an unfamiliar setting around you. Culture shock is feeling uncomfortable in a new place. It might take a bit of time to settle (first two weeks are usually the most intense). There is not anything in particular that might cause it, but rather a mixture of new habits you come across when you move abroad: unknown greetings (for example, in France the most common greeting among members of the family is the ‘la bise’ (kiss on both cheeks), local customs, accents you are not used to, or unusual food. The unknown can be overwhelming and might lead to making a cultural faux pas or feeling confused, anxious, lonely or unconfident. In essence, it might cause you stress.

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What are the stages of culture shock for an expat?

Culture shock varies and every expat experiences it slightly differently. However, it is generally thought that there are four main stages:

  1. The honeymoon stage. In the first few weeks in their new country, many expats report feeling excitement, happiness and euphoria. It is the first stage of culture shock. There is a lot to explore and – after a long time of planning – your adventure is underway. It feels a bit like being on holiday, and you haven’t had time to start missing your friends and family or your usual routines. You are feeling excited by the new surroundings, and you are looking for signs of similarity between your own and the new culture. You find the local people very open and friendly to strangers, and you are charmed by the new cultural habits. Enjoy every minute of this stage, but keep in mind that the second stage does tend to follow at some point so it helps to be prepared. Check out our guide on top ten reasons to move abroad and become an expat.
  2. The frustration stage. This is where reality starts to set in and the sense of excitement starts to wear off. You may feel tired from all the effort of moving and adjusting. You may feel frustrated at the way things work in your new country – whether that’s the transport network, the customs, the food or the weather. You may even feel angry, both at your new home and at yourself for making the choice to move. This second phase of culture shock often coincides with feelings of loss and homesickness; missing friends and family and your old way of life and wondering if you made the right decision. Small challenges and issues might wear you out, and you might feel like a failure. This is the most difficult stage of being abroad and away from your home. You might feel:

    • Frustrated
    • Sad
    • Anxious
    • Always tired
    • Belittled
    • Homesick
    • Lost and out of place.

    The important thing to remember is that this phase of uncertainty is completely normal and will pass. Experts recommend toughing out this phase rather than panicking and returning to your home country or making any other big changes. After you’ve been in a new country for a while as an expat you’ll be taking a more active role in your community.

  3. The adaption stage. At around the 6-9 month mark, the third phase of culture shock begins. This is when expats tend to start accepting their new life and enjoying it. The sense of loneliness or isolation starts to lift and you remember why you made the big leap of moving abroad.
    In this phase, you have established routines, made new friends and acquaintances, and hopefully made strides in learning the local language. You start to ‘get’ the place you live and understand why things are the way they are. You no longer feel uncomfortable in new situations. You realise that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do things, simply a different way.
  4. The acceptance stage. You have accepted that this is where you live now; this is your life. You are feeling comfortable and secure. Although you may not go back to the honeymoon-style feelings you felt when you first became an expat, you are certainly feeling happy and settled. Of course, you will still have your moments of missing home, particularly friends, family, familiar customs and home comforts. But these feelings will come and go, they won’t send you into a low mood or a panic that you made the wrong decision. You let go of perfection and realise that complete understanding isn’t necessary to successfully function and thrive in the new surroundings.

 

How does culture shock impact you when you move abroad?

When you move abroad to live or work, it is very common to focus on the practicalities such as where you will live and work, where your children will study and what you will do about things like banking and health insurance. It makes sense, then, that the emotional side of moving abroad can be less of a focus while you’re preparing for your move. Therefore, it can feel like a ‘shock’ to the system once the initial excitement of the move has worn off.

John Chapman, traveller and senior manager at Pivt app for relocation

When people leave ‘home’ to live elsewhere, they leave behind much of what made their home in the first place. This is not just their house or apartment; it’s their culture, friends and support network, ‘their shops’, leisure activities, etc. Re-establishing yourself in a new location isn’t just about getting there and finding a place to live. To thrive, people need to find what’s important to them and more often than not, that starts with finding others with similar interests and life experiences to connect with and start rebuilding that support network.


 

There are obvious examples of culture shock such as getting used to a different language, a different climate, a different transport system and different food customs.

Less obvious examples of culture shock include acclimatising to:

  • different hand gestures
  • different facial expressions and levels of eye contact
  • whether people wait in lines or not
  • how people greet one another (hug; single kiss; kiss on both cheeks; handshake)
  • whether you are expected to haggle and/or tip.

It can help to find out as much as you can about the destination you are moving to before you go. There are expat Facebook groups for most of the top expat destinations. For example, Madrid was voted the most welcoming city in 2019, with Kuala Lumpur the easiest city to get settled in. And when it comes to making friends, Mexico City comes out on top, with 71% saying it’s easy to make friends.

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Tips to overcome culture shock

It’s not just expats who have experienced it at some point of their lives: you are speaking to a person from a different background, and you suddenly realise you’ve made a cultural faux pas. It might be a misreading of the content, making someone feel awkward or misunderstanding of a joke. If this mistake happened in your own culture, you would be able to make up for it quickly because you know the rules for apologising. However, when gaffes happen across cultures, they can leave you at a loss for what to do and how to respond.

To overcome culture shock and make the most of your new experience, seasoned expats suggest you:

  1. Prepare as much as possible before you go in terms of learning the language. Consider regional dialects too. So, for example, expats who learn Castilian Spanish before a move to South or Central America can find that there are significant variations. Also try to learn about etiquette before you go. This is particularly important in destinations like Japan, one of the most popular destinations for expats. But there are nuances in every country, even if the language is the same.
  2. Reach out to both expat and local groups to make contacts before you arrive. It can help to start with a specific interest such as sport, craft, dance or volunteering.
  3. Establish a routine as quickly as possible based around the new time zone and how a typical day runs. This may mean adjusting your bedtime, or building in a siesta for example.
  4. Avoid comparisons between your new destination and your home country. Be open minded and remember why you decided to make the move in the first place – to experience a new culture.
  5. Don’t believe what you see on social media. Seek out realistic portrayals of becoming an expat and navigating culture shock, rather than highly filtered accounts on Instagram, for example. There are many excellent accounts of navigating culture shock from expats including YouTube videos and podcasts.
  6. Keep exploring and being curious about your new destination. Always keep some of that initial curiosity that led you to make the choice to become an expat. Watch the local television, especially the news. One day you will find yourself understanding it without having the subtitles on!
  7. Talk about your feelings. Don’t keep things to yourself. There is nothing weak about having doubts or feeling homesick, it is completely normal. If you feel you are getting depressed, speak to a professional as soon as possible.
  8. Put your health first as everything else is harder to deal with if you are ill. Look after yourself, prioritise self-care, healthy eating and staying active.
Eventually if you give yourself time, you will enjoy the new culture and make new friends / GETTY IMAGES

Dos and don’ts for culture shock

  • Do: Commit to forging new connections. It’s normal to seek a sense of familiarity by spending time with other expats. However, to overcome culture shock in the long-term you need to step out of your comfort zone. While 32% of expats say their friendship circle is mostly other expats, 48% say they have a mixed group of friends including expats and locals.
  • Do: Hang on to that growth mindset feeling that led you to be open and courageous enough to move abroad in the first place. The benefits are huge – from increased confidence, to improved career prospects. You’re also modelling a growth mindset for your children and giving them a breadth of new experiences and taking on new challenges.
  • Do: Consider your partner and children. If they are one of the 11% of people who move abroad for love or the 7% who move for their partner’s education or job, make sure they are settling in as well. Things will be different for them – especially if they don’t have a job yet. You may already speak the language and have friends, for example.
  • Do: Look after your health. Stay active and remember to eat and sleep well. Take steps immediately if you feel your physical or mental health is being affected.
  • Check out our guide on the best places for healthcare globally.

  • Don’t: Set your expectations too high. You may never feel like a local who understands every single cultural nuance and colloquial phrase.
  • Don’t: Spend too much time calling home. It’s important to stay in touch with friends and family back home, but make sure it’s balanced with making new connections as this is crucial to feeling settled and content.
  • Don’t: Rush it. Be patient and remember all stages of culture shock do pass.

And finally, if you’ve been through all the stages of culture shock and things are still not feeling right, don’t be afraid to make a change. Is it not ‘failing’ if you decide to move back home after giving it a fair go in your destination country.

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How to grow from your culture shock and turn it into a learning opportunity

  1. Stop trying to be perfect at everything. If you reframe how you approach making mistakes, and accept them as inevitable side effects of relocating and working across cultures, you will feel much better about yourself. Learning mindset – where you see cultural faux pas as a chance for improvement – is far more helpful and enjoyable.

    It is difficult — especially for perfectionists and those who have a lot on the line, like a member of a global sales team trying to close a deal. A perfectionistic, performance-oriented mindset can also make the situation feel more dire than it really is and lead to incorrect and counterproductive assumptions.

  2. Read a lot about local culture. Feeling uncomfortable in a new country often happens in the flow of everyday life. You need to give yourself time and equip yourself with knowledge. In these cases, you have more time and resources to prepare yourself by learning the cultural norms. For example, if your role in the company requires you to attend events with manufacturing partners in China, you can find out ahead of time what appropriate behavior looks like for your Chinese counterparts and what kinds of cultural trip wires may be present. Look into what verbal and body language people use when faux pas occur. For example, do they say “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry” — or even smile, laugh, bow, or look away?
  3. When you make a mistake, keep your cool. How you respond to a cultural mistake often matters as much as the fact that you’ve messed up, so before reacting, take a breath and remember your preparations.
  4. Engage in self-reflection. Responding in the moment may facilitate damage control, but the real learning comes when you use self-reflection to transform your mistake into a cross-cultural lesson you can use. For example: What did you do? How did people react? How did you know that you had made a mistake? What other responses were available, and why did you choose the one you did? What might you have missed or assumed? What did you not understand? And what different choices would you make next time?
  5. Get feedback from the locals. A big part of having a learning attitude is showing that you’re open to feedback. Getting feedback is the cornerstone of the cultural learning process, because without it, you’ll never really be able to get outside your head and know if you’re doing it right.

Culture shock FAQ

Culture shock may make you feel unsettled in a new culture, but don’t worry, this is completely normal! With time and adjustment to the new culture you are living in, the feelings you experience should pass. You will also learn a lot.

Culture shock is adjustment to a new culture and environment when you move to live abroad. It can happen when you experience cultures that are different to the one you have known. Culture shock can lead to a mix of emotions, including anxiety, loss of confidence, excitement, confusion, loneliness and uncertainty.

Though it might come across as negative, culture shock is normal part of relocation experience that many people go through when moving or traveling. While it can be challenging, those who can resolve their feelings and adjust to their new environment often overcome culture shock. As a result, cultural adjustment can lead to personal growth and a favourable experience.

For example, international students who have come to the UK for their degree can experience culture shock. Language barriers and unfamiliar customs un the country can make it challenging to adjust, leading some students to feel angry and anxious. As a result, students can withdraw from social activities and experience minor health problems such as trouble sleeping.

Over time, students become more familiar with their new surroundings as they make new friends and learn social cues. The result can lead to growth and a new appreciation of the culture for international student.

Culture shock is typically divided into four stages: the honeymoon, frustration, adaptation, and acceptance stage. These periods are characterised by feelings of loneliness, excitement, anger, homesickness, adjustment, and acceptance.

Wherever you move, go with total peace of mind

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Making the move to another country can be challenging. But no matter where you go, you can take one thing off your mind. William Russell offers global health insurance that can cover you for everything from minor injuries to long hospital stays, and we even offer medical evacuations to patients who require treatment in other countries.

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