New expat? How to avoid culture shock

New expat? How to avoid culture shock

Moving overseas can undoubtedly be a life-enhancing experience, but amid all the excitement people often overlook a potentially crippling element of becoming an expat: culture shock. This refers to the disorientation and discomfort that individuals may experience when they encounter a new culture and environment that’s significantly different from their own.

Culture shock is a psychological, emotional – and sometimes physical – response to unfamiliar social norms, customs, language, behaviours, and values. When suddenly exposed to this alien setting people may feel a sense of confusion, anxiety, frustration, or isolation. They might even display physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches. The intensity and duration of the symptoms can vary depending on factors such as personality, previous exposure to different cultures, and social support.

Culture shock can be triggered by various factors, both large and small – from a different language, a different climate, and different food to different greetings, different levels of eye contact and different queueing etiquette.

There are four common stages of culture shock:

  • Honeymoon stage: Initially, new expats feel excited and fascinated by the new culture and may be enthusiastic about exploring and learning.
  • Frustration stage: Before long, the differences in language, food, and social customs can become overwhelming. Individuals feel frustrated, anxious, and experience a sense of disconnection or homesickness.
  • Adjustment stage: With time, individuals become more familiar with and begin to adapt to the new culture. They start to develop coping strategies and gain a better understanding of the cultural nuances.
  • Acceptance stage: Individuals are able to navigate daily life with ease, build relationships, and appreciate the unique aspects of the culture. They may even experience a sense of belonging.

There is light at the end of the tunnel as you progress through the culture shock process – so, don’t panic and let it ruin your big move. View this natural response to a new cultural environment as an important part of your personal growth and worldly understanding. To help you achieve this, here are some coping strategies that will minimise culture shock.

Do your research

Before moving, familiarise yourself with the culture, customs, traditions, and social norms of the country you are moving to – from how much to tip in a restaurant to how many kisses to give someone when greeting them. Did you know that in Japan it is widely encouraged to make slurping sounds while eating noodles, and in Malaysia, it’s incredibly offensive to point with your index finger – you will if you do your research. So, read books, use the internet, watch documentaries, and connect with people who have lived there.

Learn the language

Making an effort to learn the local language will enhance your ability to connect with people and understand your surroundings. Start taking classes before you make the move – and continue them when you arrive. Even a basic grasp of the language will go a long way with the locals.

Once there, practice with native speakers, and immerse yourself in daily interactions. When the local tongue eventually clicks, you will have the confidence to break down communication barriers and integrate.

Meet new people

Overcome feelings of isolation and alienation by immersing yourself in the local community and meeting new people – both locals and expats. This might seem daunting at first, but if you embrace the social scene at work, join a club, or perhaps volunteer, you will find yourself welcomed with open arms. Meetup for example, is a social media platform for hosting and organising in-person (if you’re in the US) and virtual activities, gatherings, and events for people and communities of similar interests, hobbies, and professions.

This support network of friends can offer guidance, advice, and support during your cultural transition. They can provide insights into local customs, include you in social activities, help you navigate bureaucratic processes, and offer emotional support as you adjust to your new environment.

Embrace the culture

Approach your new surroundings with an open mind and the willingness to learn. Accept that things will be different and be prepared to adapt your perspectives and behaviours accordingly.

Make a concerted effort to embrace the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the local people. Respect their way of life and avoid making hasty judgments. Observe how they interact, dress, and behave in social situations. By acting like a local, you’ll quickly find that it becomes second nature as you blend in and become more accepted. This doesn’t have to be a stressful process. Remember, you don’t need to do everything at once.

Seek out familiarity

You don’t have to completely reinvent yourself when you move overseas. Look for elements of your own culture in your new surroundings by connecting with expat communities and participating in activities that align with your interests. This can provide a sense of familiarity and support while still allowing you to explore your new environment. Don’t, however, let these familiar interactions impede your efforts to embrace the local culture.

Look after yourself

Moving to a new country can be emotionally and physically draining. To overcome these demands, look after yourself by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, getting sufficient rest, and engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation. This will help you manage your stress levels and stay mentally and physically balanced. By engaging in social activities, such as joining a sports team, you can stay healthy and make new friends at the same time.

Be realistic and patient

You won’t adjust to a new culture overnight – it takes time to learn a language, forge new relationships, and understand your new surroundings. So, don’t put yourself under pressure to live like a local immediately. Be patient and embrace the inevitable ups and downs you will experience during the settling-in process and remain realistic in your expectations. Treat inevitable challenges as learning opportunities, and keep a positive attitude.

Don’t worry about currency transfers

Your money will have to move overseas with you, exposing your finances to fluctuating exchange rates. If left unaccounted for, this currency risk has the potential to drive up the cost of your international payments – increasing your stress levels.

Make sure you mitigate currency risk when moving overseas, so you can concentrate on settling in. Search for the best deal when making these cross-border payments by comparing the world’s leading foreign exchange companies here.

Tom Vicary