So, what is culture shock? It is a phenomenon that all types of expatriates experience, no matter if they work abroad for the first time or if they are veterans in the field of expat assignments. Often, it is the deeper cultural differences in mindset, customs and interpersonal interaction that trigger this phenomenon and turn cultural transition into a struggle.
Whereas every expat will experience some form of culture shock, not everyone goes through all the well-known stages. While some skip stages or rush through them, others may experience certain stages of cultural transition more than once and in a different order. Culture shock is a rather nerve-wrecking phenomenon, a sense of anxiety, nervousness and alienation caused by being exposed to an alien environment and culture. However, it’s an essential part of the transition process: A willingness to work through it is the first step towards integration.
Those who can’t answer the question “what is culture shock?” and refuse to face it often fail to overcome it. This may result in great disillusionment. For some, the only logical solution is then going back home before the end of their assignment. Such expatriate failures occur particularly often in cases where the cultures of home and host country differ drastically.
The first step towards overcoming this inevitable phenomenon is to ask yourself “what is culture shock?” and try to understand it. Most experts define it as a curve-like process while many people who have experienced it first-hand say that it manifests itself in a series of waves. Positive and negative feelings often take turns and make expats feel like they are on an emotional rollercoaster ride.
Culture shock is not a myth, but a predictable phenomenon. Anybody who spends more than just a vacation abroad has to go through it. The intensity with which people experience it, however, depends on a lot of factors. Those who receive the least support on a professional and personal basis are usually hit the hardest. Expat spouses in particular often feel isolated and resentful when they experience life in a new cultural environment.
In order to avoid failed expat assignments and early repatriation, HR departments should support expats and expat spouses from the very beginning, e.g. in the form of intercultural competence training. Expatriates who organize their move abroad entirely on their own can also take measures to minimize the negative emotional effects caused by their relocation and try to soften the blow. If expats learn about the culture and people of their host country in advance, they will be less shocked by obvious differences in social customs, religion, language or food.
At the end of the day, while unpleasant, it is a necessary step towards integration. The key to a successful expat assignment is to expect it, to plan for it and then to roll up one’s sleeves and get through it.
So after attempting a short definition of this phenomenon, we will now identify its various stages. We shall thus answer the question “what is culture shock” by looking at the ways it manifests.