Leaving the UK to set up a new life in a new country can be a stressful as well as an exciting experience. Even though it may be something you have planned and prepared for, the extent of the change and the effects it has on you and your family may take you by surprise. By being aware of the impact in advance, it can help you to appreciate your experience is quite normal. This applies whatever country you come from, and wherever you are going, even though some cultures are more similar than others.
What is culture shock?
Culture shock is a personal disorientation that people often experience when they move abroad due to the unfamiliar surroundings and usually a different way of life. Many people use the term “culture shock” when they go on holiday and experience a new country because they see a lot of things that are different and do shock them. When relocating abroad however the culture shock is more complex than that. While at first we are likely to be excited about the move and all of the potential the new country has to offer, you can find yourself feeling uneasy when it begins to sink in that you will not be returning to the familiarity of home.
Moving internationally adds a lot more pressure than simply moving to a different region and this combined with the local customs of your new destination can leave you pining for your home town. Culture shock does of course differ from person to person and some people may have just brushed it off as home sickness but for others it can be a cause of serious distress.
Many people find it impossible to integrate and accept the new culture as their own, but if you have relocated for your work or family this is something that you cannot just turn your back on. If you get to grips with the different stages you may go through before you make the move then they might not be quite so much of a shock once you’re there. Not everyone will go through every single stage and some people may even experience several stages more than once. However, the most common order for the stages is:
The Honeymoon stage:
This is similar to the feeling that you get when you go on holiday. Everything in the new destination is intriguing and exciting. You love the differences between the new country and your own and you quite often enjoy their way of life. Everything that is different is interesting and you can’t wait to try all of the new foods and visit all of the new places this country has to offer. At this time you will feel very positive about everything that this country has to offer and be looking forward to your time here.
The Distress Stage
A little later, perhaps a few weeks or months into the move you will begin to feel anxious. All of the differences can now seem confusing particularly if you are having trouble remembering some of the local customs. At a time where you would usually speak to family and friends about the issues you are dealing with, you are very aware that they are not close by. You may be finding that the native’s behaviour odd or unpredictable and you may begin to start feeling very isolated. This can lead to you resenting your new home and wishing that you had not made the decision to move.
The Adjustment Stage
By this time you will have really started to settle into your own routine. You will know what you should be doing and when and will know you’re way to work and local shops etc. This makes you less anxious as you feel you are regaining some kind of normality. Whilst you may not necessarily understand all of the people’s behaviours you have accepted them as a part of your daily life and the more time that passes the more at ease you will begin to feel.
The Enthusiasm Stage
By this stage you have become much more confident and trust yourself in any kind of social situation in what you are now calling “home”. You can now see the full potential of living in this country and have come to accept all of the cultural differences that once scared you. There will be parts of the culture that you have now adopted and will even prefer this way of life to the one you left behind.
How can I combat it?
· Social roles/behaviour
While culture shock is not limited to these areas, these do tend to be the things that we notice first and are the most important to us. We spend so much of our time socialising with people that if the people we are around suddenly have completely different beliefs and values to ourselves it can be difficult to adjust to. Area’s such as climate may sound like something that you won’t have a problem with as you’ve experienced it on holidays but living there is completely different. What you can tolerate for two weeks is not the same as having to tolerate something for potentially a life time. This can be a bigger adjustment depending on where you are moving to. If you were moving to Australia for example, there may be times during the summer where it is so hot that you feel you can’t go outside or places such as Canada have a shockingly cold winter which is something you may not be prepared for.
Food can be a major source of shock and not just mentally but physically. A drastic change in diet can affect your body and is something that you will only get used to over time. The best way to try to integrate yourself is to stick to lots of fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables in the beginning. Try to introduce the new foods into your diet slowly rather than just switching completely and this will be less of a shock to your body and your mind.
The language can be one of the biggest culture shocks even if you’re fluent in it. The shock can come from just not hearing your own language on a daily basis. If you do not speak the language then lessons may be exactly what you need, even if you are not looking to be fluent a few key phrases to get you around your new city will help you feel more at home. If you are just missing your native language look for any groups of expats, you won’t be the first person to have made the move. It can be really helpful to anyone who’s in shock to be surrounded by a familiar language.
Behaviour and values is definitely always the biggest culture shock. The way of life in your new country is going to be different, there is no doubt about that. They will have different traditions, values and even religions than what you were previously exposed to. Every culture has their own way of treating people and what is a high priority in one country may not matter at all in another. It is always worth researching common cultural practices to avoid offending anybody when you arrive. Don’t forget the differences can literally be anything so don’t take anything for granted even if you are going for a job interview you should think about what time that culture defines as early, arriving ten minutes before the interview can be considered late in some countries.
It is important to try and really immerse yourself in the local culture so that you and your partner/family can see the fun side of the new community you are living in, rather than seeing it as a burden.
This can be a difficult thing to do particularly when you are in the distress stage but it is about pushing through it and looking at the big picture. If you are making the move by yourself then this is even more vital. Do some preparation before you go and get the contact details of anyone who has already made the move you’re about to make.
If you don’t know anyone out there then look for some local expat groups or groups with the locals that you can join. This will help you to adjust much quicker and experience new things in a friendly environment helping to take the shock out of the change. You have to remember that everything will be different to you not just the big things. The way people conduct their business will be different and the things they eat for breakfast will be different.
Try to embrace your new culture and if you have chance spend a day living like a local. Going through culture shock is just a necessary part of integration.