Expat Advice on How to Manage Culture Shock

Culture shock affects expats when they move overseas. Learning strategies for relieving culture shock allows them to focus on living life to the fullest.

The physical and psychosocial symptoms of culture shock vary from person to person, as does the extent to which each expat is affected. But there are numerous strategies to diminish the severity and manage the symptoms.

Knowledge-Based Strategies for Managing Culture Shock

Many expats fail to recognize the symptoms of culture shock, and think there must be something wrong with them. Knowing they’re experiencing a normal reaction to an overseas move (and not going crazy) is a welcome relief and eliminates a source of anxiety.

Continuing to learn about the host country is a critical step in the battle against culture shock. The more knowledge an expat has about the new environment, the better. Observation is a low-risk method of intelligence-gathering that allows the expat to learn appropriate behaviours, even if the reasoning behind them isn’t yet clear.

Books and websites are good sources of information, but the best resources are natives of the new country. Most people are proud of their culture, and delight in showing it off to newcomers. Asking questions with genuine curiosity (never hostility or derision) often leads to a wealth of information. Cross-cultural training, either pre-departure or in-country, is another useful option.

Making friends with local people is rewarding on many levels. It’s especially helpful if the person is willing to act as a cultural informant. Making connections within the expat community is also beneficial, as it reduces feelings of alienation and loneliness. However, expats should guard against using compatriots as an excuse to isolate themselves from the host culture.

Emotion-Based Strategies for Managing Culture Shock

The most effective approach to managing culture shock involves an attitude adjustment on the part of the expatriate. The first step is to acknowledge the loss of leaving the old, familiar life behind. Expats need to take some time at the beginning of a posting to grieve what came before, and then let it go so they can focus on the future.

Keeping an open mind is critical. The expatriate who views the new culture with an attitude of openness and respect will have a far better outcome than one who is suspicious and critical.

Successful expats use the following strategies to limit the effects of culture shock:

They build a strong support system and know when to access it. (This includes formal channels such as the sponsoring organization’s IEAP.)
They adjust their attitude by viewing the time overseas as an opportunity for personal growth.
They break out of their comfort zone, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day to start.
They record their experiences, thoughts, and feelings in a journal.
They have a sense of humour, and faith in their abilities.
They socialize with local people.
They make the effort to learn – and use – the language.
They nurture family relationships.
They set small, achievable goals and regularly evaluate their progress.
When things go wrong (and things will always go wrong), they don’t automatically blame the host culture.

Embracing the host culture is essential for dealing with culture shock, but that doesn’t mean the passport culture must be rejected. Because the brain is constantly bombarded with novel stimuli in the new environment, taking the occasional mental break gives expats a chance to integrate the new information, and re-establish their cultural identities. Canadian Deborah Dundas discovered the importance of cultural time-outs when Starbucks came to her host city of Belfast. Although not a fan of the coffee chain, she admitted in an April 2010 phone interview to being thrilled.

“I could walk into Starbucks and imagine myself being home,” she explained. “Even though it was important for me to immerse myself in the culture of Northern Ireland, every now and then I needed those little touchstones to keep me grounded in who I am and where I came from.”

Physical Strategies for Managing Culture Shock

The stresses associated with expatriate life invariably cause physical tension, which can lead to illness if not relieved. Expats must therefore pay close attention to what their bodies are telling them.

Good physical habits are vitally important in the battle against culture shock. Daily physical activity is recommended, along with some form of relaxation therapy such as yoga, meditation, or massage. Other effective strategies include getting adequate sleep and fresh air, eating balanced meals, and limiting alcohol intake.

Avoiding culture shock entirely may not be possible. In fact, experiencing culture shock may be a necessary step on the journey to expatriate adjustment. Fortunately, its sometimes debilitating effects can be managed with the right strategies, as Texas-based Kathryn Brimacombe knows well.

The Canadian expat revealed that when she found herself suffering from culture shock, she started taking Spanish lessons and joined an outrigger canoe club. She’s happy to report that her efforts paid off: “Through time and cultivation of relationships I made through these groups, I have created my own support network, my own community.”