How to survive the Culture shock as an Expatriate

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Everyone can settle in a foreign culture and overcome the culture shock! In the course of this article, I will give you a variety of tips. You'll understand what a culture shock is, why it usually happens to all of us, and how you're best equipped to stand up to the classic expatriate depression.

In the beginning, there was a honeymoon

I always thought I'm a tolerant, cosmopolitan person. Until I spent a high school year with the American Field Service in the US. At first, I thought everything went really amazing! Everyone was so nice and open-minded. After two weeks, I thought I had 20 new friends. And the food: those incredibly large portions. Ice cream in two-liter portions! Mexican fast food! My teenage heart felt like in the land of plenty. The school was easy going. My host family was so nice. I thought: I landed in paradise!

But the high did not last forever. After four months, I sat in my new home highly depressed. Two of the 20 "friends" remained. The others had said, "Yeah, lets meet-up again soon." But that never happened. "Totally superficial" I found the Americans for that reason.

ON MY WAY DOWN

My initial euphoria was gone. Everything got on my nerves now: I could not ride a bicycle, as I was used to in Germany. If I wanted to go somewhere, I always had to ask my host mother or brother. Of course, I had known that before, but I never expected how much my everyday routines would change and how difficult that was.

I also had great difficulties understanding the  "hidden rules". At school, I felt slow and clumsy. No one understood my jokes and in discussions, I could not really prevail.

I preferred to hang out with another exchange student from Honduras. He was just as bad as me. Our favorite activity: blaspheming about "the Americans".

After six months I was at my absolute low. Homesickness hello welcome. Till I had a conversation with my mentor. She said to me: "You have a culture shock. This is completely normal."

What? I used to think "having a culture shock" means being shocked when you see something unknown or strange in another culture. Like grilled insects. Or strange dances. Since I'm from a German-Austrian family, cultural differences since my childhood are part of my life. "That does not concern me", I thought. I would never have thought that culture shock can feel like a depression.

What is culture shock?

The culture shock phases were even scientifically researched. It turned out that for most people they look something like this:

Culture shock
  • Honeymoon: Everything is stimulating and exciting. You feel euphoric and like on a nice vacation.
  • Culture shock - the crisis: The first homesickness occurs. You feel alien in the new environment. You are not sure how to behave in everyday contact situations in the workplace, in interpersonal conversations with neighbors or in the supermarket. You somehow mourn your old home. Everything was much nicer there! You could interpret all the gestures and undertones of your fellow human without any problems. Everything is so exhausting here! Your performance decreases significantly and your emotional life is mixed up.
  • Adaptation / Recovery: Slowly you understand the values and habits of your host country. You have proven your initiative and built a network of friends. You take really good care of yourself. You understand your needs and how to provide for them. The more stable and faded your self-esteem, the freer you can now approach your environment. You have fresh ideas and exciting projects. Your stay abroad becomes a unique opportunity.
  • Reverse culture shock: When you come back to your old home, you will probably meet the returnee culture shock. The old home does not seem to have changed. But you did! At some point, some old friends are no longer interested in the stories from abroad or can no longer follow them. Much is totally familiar. Much annoys. If returning from Germany, you might think: "Why don´t they keep a proper distance? And why is everybody smiling here all the time? Why aren't there any strict rules? If you do well, then after some time you integrate the new culture into your culture of origin. Depending on the person you are dealing with, you can then be factual (with Germans) or relationship-oriented (with e.g. Italians). This is called successful interpersonal, intercultural competence.

BECOMING AWARE: IF I DO NOT CHANGE, NOTHING CHANGES!

After talking to my mentor in the US, about my frustrations, she said to me: "There is only one person that can make you feel better: you!" I knew she was right and felt a little embarrassed.

MY STRATEGY - I

First, I spoke with my friend from Honduras and we agreed that we would not blaspheme about the Americans. Then began a long, somewhat laborious way to build up a network of real friends. Not so easy, with my depression. Pro-active here was the magic word. No one is "waiting for you" in another culture!

SECOND TIME ABROAD - LESSONS LEARNED

During my second stay abroad, I was already a little smarter. As a student, I went to Austria for five years. I chose a shared flat to live in with Austrians. I deliberately chose direct contact with the locals.

I avoided other exchange students who were blaspheming about Austria. Right from the beginning, I proactively tried to build a network of friends. The result: the culture shock came, but not very strong. And when I got that far, I had a strong network of friends supporting me geeting through it.

THIRD TIME ABROAD: ROCK THE CULTURE SHOCK!

After five years in Austria I went to Italy for two years. I continued with my strategies, that had worked well so far. I lived in an Italian shared flat and avoided the Erasmus community (international exchange students) as much as possible, except to make some international contacts.

I also adapted uncompromisingly to the Italian rhythm: for breakfast, there was a café and a cornetto, of course standing (not sitting) at the bar at the corner. Just as the Romans do. Dinner at the earliest at 9:00 in the evening, with a big group of Italian friends.

RETURNING HOME: ALL DIFFERENT AGAIN

After seven years abroad, I was drawn back to Germany. I have to admit, it felt quite strange for a while. A lot was super-familiar but felt quite strange. As soon as I arrived, I went to the bakery and parked my big suitcases in front of the counter and looked around. "Get the suitcase out! It is blocking the counter" I was grumbled at by the baker very directly. "Welcome back to Germany!" I thought as I recovered from a brief shock. Welcome back Culture shock!

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