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Culture Shock - the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Are you in the process of moving to another country for a few years? If yes, congratulations! You will soon be an expatriate. You are probably very busy preparing for your move. Besides all of the practical issues like applying for a VISA, finding a place to live, a school for the children, redirecting the mail, etc, I wonder if you had time to prepare mentally for your move?

What are your expectations about your new host country? What do you know about it? Have you been there before on a vacation, on a business trip, on your look and see trip?

If you are working for a larger company, they might have offered you a seminar where they invite the whole family to give you some training on how to thrive in a foreign country. One of the big topics you would discuss is culture shock. But what is culture shock? Merriam Webster defines it as:

"a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that

may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate


In most cases, there are four emotional phases that you will experience when you live in a foreign country.

Once you arrive in your host country everything is exciting and new. You feel like you are on a holiday that will never end. The food tastes delicious, there is so much to see and explore and you proudly send pictures home to let everyone know: you are having the time of your life. It is called the honeymoon face and it usually last three months.

After three months reality kicks in and you realize that some parts of the culture begin to annoy you. You get frustrated and you sense that everything was better back home. You might question your decision to ever come here in the first place. Depending on the culture you might start to miss food, weather, friends and family and speaking in your own language. You might get homesick big time. If phase two hits you really hard you may even get a depression or an eating disorder, insomnia or some other pain that indicates you are not doing so well.

This second phase is called negotiation where you might experience anxiety in one form or another. And those feelings hurt. You might feel trapped and helpless, because in most cases you planned to stay at least for one year, more often for two or even three. And you do the math and realize there is a lot of time ahead of you and if we don't enjoy something suddenly time passes by so slowly which makes it even worse.

And how tragic is it to wish your life away?

In those dark moments I wish everyone has a professional coach by their side who gets you out of this depression and focused on what you can change, what you can do to make this time abroad worthwhile, to turn this new place into a home, to get you excited about something you might be only able to do abroad.

COACHING because your time abroad counts!

Even without a coach you might eventually reach stage three of culture shock which is called adjustment. After about 9months you start to adjust. You get more and more used to how things are in this new culture. You have found new friends, a favorite restaurant, a good doctor. Places begin to look familiar and you developed a new routine.

According to scientists this will lead to the last phase of culture shock: adaption. After one year you have experienced all four seasons, all holidays, the climate in this place and you are better prepared the second time. When you now meet a newcomer expat you might be even proud to show him around, explain the customs and give him some advice if he asks you any questions.

But is it enough for you to only adapt to a place? To accept your host country? It may not hurt as much as it did in phase two, but is that enough? Is that why you traveled in the first place? Will that make you happy?

Most people will go through culture shock and will reach the last phase adaption without a coach. Not to mention that every situation is unique and your honeymoon phase might last until you have to leave your host country. But chances are, especially if you move to a place which is completely different to what you are used to, that you will experience culture shock. A coach will help you to navigate those changes. You don't have to be alone and together you will figure out how to make this time worthwhile, so you can really look back one day and be excited about everything you have achieved in a land far far away.

One more thing: if you have looked closely at the graph, you might have seen another emotional phase once you go back home: the Reverse Culture Shock. But this is a topic for another time. Having said this...

... to be continued.


- Bill Bryson -


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