Tag Archives: culture shock

First Impressions in a New Culture

Three friends who have not seen each other since high school twenty years ago are chatting late at night.  One has since moved to Canada, US and now France.  One has lived in Geneva, New York and is now back in Romania.  The third has lived in the UK, Germany and Greece. 

Friends' Reunion

They are comparing notes about their first impressions of their new cultures – and their first impressions whenever they go ‘home’ to their birth country.  What did they find most ‘different’ at first sight?

1) Rules of hospitality.  How to behave as a guest, how generous (or not) to be as a host, subtle rules and assumptions about present-giving and receiving – these are the most immediate eye-openers.  Food running out at Western parties is often mentioned by Mediterraneans and East Europeans as an example of lack of hospitality.

2) Gallantry.  How men behave towards women in public.  All three of them said they missed the gallantry of having doors opened for them and seats offered to them, even the odd wolf-whistle, in the Anglo-American or Germanic cultures.  The feeling was that these latter cultures were not necessarily less sexist, but just less interested in women.  Particularly in those that were not available.

3) Levels of friendliness can be hard to interpret.   You have to be prepared to deal with rejection and not take it personally.  And not confess too much to the first person who wishes you a nice day.

4) Speaking the language of your host country is tricky, even if you previously thought you were fluent in it.  Regional accents, colloquial expressions, new slang and cultural allusions that you are unfamiliar with (cricket or baseball metaphors, anyone?) can make you feel like a beginner all over again.

What about your own big ‘eye-opening’ moments when you moved to a new culture?  What did you find interesting, exciting or perhaps frustrating?  And did your first impressions change after spending more time in that country?


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Why do Britons kill abroad?

OK, this is going to be controversial.  Let me clarify:  I do not mean that Brits are the only ones to kill abroad.  Nor do I mean that Brits have to go abroad to kill and crime doesn’t happen in the UK. Nor am I trying to find excuses for people to commit crimes abroad.  No, I was simply musing on those tragic stories recently in the news:  the mother who smothered her children in Spain and the man who killed his girlfriend in Greece.

Of course we can’t possibly know what was going on in those minds as they embarked upon those horrific deeds.  And I do not want to find a neat, trite little model of an explanation for what must have been (at least in one case) a very complicated and particular set of circumstances.  But I couldn’t help wondering if the fact that these individuals were abroad did contribute in some small way to the tragic outcome.

Life abroad, especially in a sunny clime, still seems very alluring to the British.  And who can blame them?  In this economic climate, a move abroad is not just a lifestyle change, but may also herald better career prospects, better housing, more money, a fresh start away from your mistakes.

Only it seldom lives up to expectations.

Expats nearly always tend to underestimate the hardship and loneliness of living abroad.  The difficulty of dealing with unfamiliar bureaucracy in a foreign language.  The length of time it takes to be accepted and start making friends.  Floundering around until you find your bearings.  It’s like a rollercoaster ride – one minute exhilarating, one minute the lowest of the low.  No one, however well adjusted, will be able to entirely avoid culture shock.

If you are a vulnerable type already, prone to anxiety, jealousy, personality disorders, living abroad can exacerbate these traits and lead you to take extreme action.  Just a thought….

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Wish I’d Known That When I Moved Abroad

I’ve conducted an informal opinion poll amongst those of my friends who have spent more than six months at a time in a different country and we came up with the following list of things we wish we had known before ever coming up with the brilliant idea to live abroad in the first place!   Because no matter how much you want to explore other countries and other cultures, there are going to be some tough times out there…

This is just a short bullet-point type list.  I have written a more detailed report about this which will be available on my website shortly.  http://www.theculturebroker.co.uk/free/

1.  Culture shock will hit you.  It may not be when or how or how much you expect it to hit you, but it will come as surely as night follows day.

2.  Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.  You cannot avoid culture shock entirely, but you can prepare for it and thereby minimise its devastating effects.

3.  Don’t just survive, learn to thrive.   Some people hate their time abroad so much that they go into minimal resistance mode, just keeping their head down until they can go back home.  Don’t let that person be you!

4.  Build your own expat support network…  After all, they are the ones who understand best what you are going through.

5. But learn to let go of the expat community.  Don’t live in an exclusively expat bubble, or you’ll feel your time abroad has been wasted (in more ways than one).

6.  Be curious about individual people and you will start to understand the culture better.

7.  Understanding is not unquestioning acceptance. YOu don’t have to agree with everything you see or hear.

8.  But understanding does breed respect.

9.  It’s OK to make mistakes.  And when you do, handle it quickly, sensitively, and don’t be afraid to admit when you are puzzled and need help.

10.  It’s the little things that matter.  The two things people most miss about their home country when they go abroad are: food and the weather.  Regardless of how wonderful the cuisine and climate may be in their adopted country (and how rubbish it may have been back home), there will always be some little things that provoke strong loyalties and nostalgia – how else can you explain the fish’n’chips and baked beans pubs in Spain?  Or me wolfing down a cheeseburger and fries in McDonald’s (a place I normally avoid) after several months in Japan?  But what I am trying to say is that it’s not decadent or culturally obtuse to miss the little things, and if we can make our lives easier by indulging in some of these luxuries, why not?

What do you think of our list?  Are there any other things you would have found useful (with the benefit of hindsight)?  What little things do you miss most of all?


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Is expat failure a myth?

You’ve probably heard of friends who emigrated to Australia/Spain/Singapore but have now decided to come back.  HR managers in multinational organisations have been aware of the problem for a while.  TV programmes like ITV’s ‘No Place Like Home’ exploit the sentiment. 

What am I talking about?  So-called ‘expat failure’ (although I am not sure most expats would like to call it that – ‘realism’, ‘maturity’ or ‘homesickness’ might be equally valid terms).  It’s about expats returning home prematurely, or feeling unhappy in their host country.

From the point of view of multinational organisations who have a policy of sending employees abroad for 2-4 years, it is serious and it is failure.  There is the real cost of selection, training, relocation, repatriation, replacement … and then the hidden costs of not performing at expected levels while on an international assignment, or (even worse) damaging long-term relationships with the host country.

A lot of ink has been spilt on this topic, with some researchers contesting the notion of ‘expat failure’ (notably Anne-Wil Harzing as far back as 1995, see http://www.harzing.com/download/failurerates.pdf)

What I am more interested in is whether the much-publicised difference in failure rates between expats from different countries actually stand up to close scrutiny.  Over and over again I read that American expats regularly suffer failure rates of 10-20%, while European and Japanese  expats suffer less than 5%.  Tempting of course for all America-bashers to laugh loudly that US companies and their employees are less culturally sensitive and adaptable, or more imperialistic and inflexible.

But is that really the case?  Do these studies take into account the fact that for Europeans and Japanese managers global mobility is a key factor for progression to senior ranks, since their own markets are quite small?  Do they look at gender differences between the US and Japan and see that the Japanese accompanying spouse (almost always the wife) is far less likely to complain about the difficulties of living abroad?  Or that Japanese expats themselves will ‘toughen it out’ rather than admit defeat and return home early?  How much research has been carried out on expats from smaller European countries, who usually have far higher language proficiencies and a more international outlook?  I also suspect the success rates of expats moving from a developing culture to a developed one are much higher, but where is the research on that?

And how about a truly revolutionary idea for ensuring expat success?  Keep them there longer!   After about 5-7 years, most people will ‘go native’ and adapt quite successfully to their host country.  However, it is claimed that repatriation is then almost impossible or that they have lost their skills and social contacts.  Clearly, this is not ideal for everyone, but perhaps organisations can benefit from having a true ‘culture broker’ in some key hub spots, someone who is immersed in both cultures, can switch easily between terms of reference and act as a mentor and coach for all those working there on shorter assignments.

Have you experienced difficulties when living abroad?  Have you returned home earlier than you expected?  What would have helped most to make your stay abroad more enjoyable or successful?

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