Cultural shock and why any expat should be ready for it

Moving to another country, it isn’t just about sorting out your relocation. It also involves adapting to the country. However, this isn’t immediate and highly likely you will pass by a “cultural shock” period. 


“At the beginning, everything was special: every day discovering new places, learning another language from the scratch, meeting new colleagues at work…but little by little, it became a routine, misunderstandings came up and I started to feel a bit down – explains an expat who moved abroad for work a couple of years ago-. I felt confused and I asked myself if moving abroad had been the right choice. However, after a while, I started liking my routine, I could understand others better, so misunderstandings disappeared, and I created my social circle. Now, I can confidently say it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.”

This expat experience isn’t unusual, as adjusting to another culture isn’t an immediate process. Plenty of people who move abroad have felt at some point the same way – they have suffer from the so-called “cultural shock”.  


What is a cultural shock?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes cultural shock as “a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place that is very different from what you are used to”. To more or less extent, every expatriate experiences a cultural shock as it’s triggered by several factors, even though what is a cause of cultural shock for one expat might not be for another one.


Causes of a cultural shock

What triggers culture shock differs from person to person, but common causes are:


- Weather (extreme temperatures, lack of sunlight…) 

-Language (communication in a foreign language, use of dialects…)

-Dressing codes (formal dressing code at work, social dressing norms, lack of sizes…)

- Food (unable to find certain products, spicy or oily dishes…)

-Social roles and rules of behaviour (difficulties to identify non-verbal communication, local expectations) 


How to minimize the cultural shock?

The good news is that if you are aware of the cultural differences and you prepare yourself, you can reduce the impact of the cultural shock. 


1. Learn about your destination before you travel. 

Search for the habits, typical foods or common behaviors. You can try to gather information about really broad topics such as education and etiquette, but also about daily practicalities like how to send a letter or the type of electrical outlets in the country.


2. Try to learn the local language and forget about the stereotypes

Studying another language is the best way to discover another culture and to break the stereotypes that you might have. It is also a way to know a bit of the local culture and it will allow you to relate with the local people as soon as you arrive and avoid isolation.


3. Allow yourself time to adjust

Being fully immersed in a new society takes time. Therefore, don’t try to rush by setting high expectations and embrace this transition period