The Early Culture Shock Stages
The honeymoon phase is the first of our five culture shock stages. It’s that phase when expats still experience their time abroad the way a tourist would: Everything feels shiny and new, and they explore their environment with enthusiasm.
When expats go through the honeymoon phase, they view everything through rose-tinted glasses. The enthusiasm about going abroad is still prevalent at this point. This phase is shaped by the anticipation of new opportunities. Most expats don’t realize that what they are experiencing is the first of several stages.
Cécile (37) has just arrived in the region of Bahia in Brazil. She will soon begin to work at the airport in Salvador after her employer, an airline, had some issues with the communication between their Brazilian branch office and the headquarters in Paris. However, Cécile is in the midst of the honeymoon phase, spending her first weeks enjoying the sunshine. ”I know I should really deal with other things right now, like getting the lock to my apartment door fixed or running errands. But at the moment, I just like to enjoy my time. Tomorrow I will go snorkeling and maybe do some shopping.”
Even those who, unlike Cécile, spend the first weeks busily organizing their new life abroad often tend to let their excitement get the better of them. However, the honeymoon phase usually only lasts a few weeks until expats like Cécile are in for a rude awakening.
The Rejection Phase
After the honeymoon phase usually follows the rejection phase, the second of our culture shock stages. When the daily grind begins to catch up with expats, most begin to recognize how significantly their host country differs from their home country. They focus mostly on the little things they miss and on conflicts arising from unspoken cultural misunderstandings.
When Carlos (26) moved from the Mexican town of Oaxaca to Geneva, his inability of speaking and understanding the local language was what frustrated him the most and what accelerated his progress through the various culture shock stages.
“I thought that, in Europe, I could get by with English,” Carlos admits. “I was always very good at that, but here it really doesn’t help me. Even at work, people often speak French, which is really frustrating. Of course, as a native speaker of Spanish, it’s easier for me to learn French than, say, Russian, but it’s still pretty annoying.”
His colleagues at the International Red Cross make sure to include Carlos in different projects as well as in after-work activities. However, it’s not the colleagues who are giving him a hard time. “It is the locals I struggle with,” Carlos points out. “They quickly get impatient with me when I don’t understand them. I feel so helpless around them.”
With Rejection Comes Alienation
Expats like Carlos often have a hard time making friends or interacting with locals. Self-doubt and a feeling of alienation have a significant impact on how they struggle to deal with the new situation. At the same time, while the new environment heavily influences all culture shock stages, it has a particularly strong impact during this phase of cultural transition.
Loneliness, homesickness and isolation, as unpleasant as they may be, are characteristic of this phase in the succession of culture shock stages. The rejection phase usually lasts between a few weeks and a few months, depending on one’s personal experience and support-network, the new surroundings and the willingness to fight against the unpleasant culture shock stages.