Being an expatriate is never easy, regardless whether it is for first time expats or for serial expats. There are a lot of different difficulties which expatriates face to a stronger degree than those who are living in their country of origin. Small daily things can become a complicated hurdle. A lot of additional bureaucratic problems can emerge from being an expat. Culture shock can have strong effects on an expatriate’s mental state. Different types of family problems can emerge. Problems with understanding the language can make life harder than usual. A different work environment compared to back home can be confusing. The list of problems that can emerge just from living overseas is nearly endless. Let’s now look at five of the most common mistakes expatriates make when trying to adapt to a new culture.
Mistake #1: Underestimating the stress of living overseas
I have already mentioned a few of the different problems that may arise for expatriates specifically. For almost everyone, all these different issues coming together lead to a higher degree of stress than what they are used to from their lives back home. The degree of uncertainty in their lives is higher. Taking care of what needs to be done gets much harder. Having to build a new social circle can be difficult for many, and even if it works well, then communication issues can arise easily as well. Overall speaking, a lot of people are not prepared for the amount of stress that they will face when living overseas.
My advice is therefore to lower your expectations about your own performance in the beginning of your stay in a new country. Even if you have already lived in another country or multiple countries before, the stress of adapting to a new environment is always going to hit you hard. Consequently, you will have to give yourself the time and space to learn how to operate in the new culture, learn the language, take care of all bureaucratic stuff that needs to be taken care of, adapt to the new work environment and so on and so forth. Eventually, you will learn how to function completely in your country of choice, but it is important here to remain patient and to keep learning and growing.
Mistake #2: Not creating a balance between going local and remaining true to your roots
Some expatriates think that as foreigners, they are obliged to adapt 100% to the local cultural environment. This is a complete illusion, as we will always remain influenced by the cultural habits which have been ingrained into us during our upbringing. People who are following this strategy will build their social environment (almost) exclusively with local people and spend a lot of energy in order to fit into their host culture.
On the other extreme are those people who are living completely in their expatriate bubble. They spend all their time with other expatriates, speaking almost exclusively either English or their own language. They will spend their free time with similar activities like they would back home, and generally do very little to adjust in any meaningful way to the local environment. This, in my view, is an incredibly sad choice. Living overseas offers so many learning opportunities, but some expatriates chose to move to Shanghai and then stick to good old McDonald’s.
It is normal that some people will feel more comfortable adapting to a new cultural environment than others. Some people will feel better going very deep into their host culture, while other people are going to learn only what is necessary in order to get by. And that is fine. But the whole point here is to constantly remain reflective in terms of whether you are drifting off too far into one direction or the other. Stay true to your roots, but also make sure that you make the most out of this unique learning opportunity that is living in a completely new cultural environment!
Mistake #3: Perceiving culture shock as something negative
Culture shock is that mental state when you are getting overwhelmed by all the new stimuli that your brain is trying to comprehend. All the new ways of thinking, the new language, the new behaviour, the different environment and so on and so forth – all of them together will inevitably lead to a point where the stress will become so strong that your mind will come to a point where a lot of negative feelings will come together.
Confusion, anxiety, anger, worry, helplessness. When living in a new country, sooner or later you will experience a lot of these feelings, and often at the same time. Once you notice this, it is likely that you are in a state of culture shock.
What you need to keep in mind, however, is that while the feelings that you are experiencing when going through culture shock are negative, the fact that you are experiencing culture shock is actually a good thing. Culture shock is essentially a state whereby old assumptions about the world are being shattered so that a new world view can emerge in your mind. As such, it is the first step in a process of transformation, whereby your way of thinking slowly changes to adapt to the new cultural environment. Therefore, we can say that culture shock is actually a necessary step in order to adjust to a new cultural environment.
Unfortunately, the natural reaction by most expatriates who experience culture shock, is to fight it. After all, there are all these negative feelings that can be absolutely overwhelming at that moment. The result is that many expatriates end up actually having a more negative picture of their host culture post-culture shock than before having this experience. Because they go through all these negative feelings, they associate these feelings with their host culture. And that is a very dangerous development.
Once you notice that you have these feelings of culture shock, it is better to take some time to reflect for yourself. As much as possible, stay away from the things that are disturbing you in the new cultural environment for a while. Take some time to talk with friends from your own culture and simply have some quiet moments for yourself. This is the time to think through all these experiences that you have had throughout your journey in your new country. Ask yourself:
- in what way do the assumptions that people make about the world in this country differ from the people from my country of origin?
- which of these assumptions from the two different cultural environments fits my own personal belief system better?
- what assumptions that I have made about the world until now are simply wrong?
- how do I need to adjust my own personal belief system in order to be the most productive in both environments?
- in which ways are my own beliefs in-congruent with those of my host culture and what can I do about it?
Mistake #4: Making assumptions about the new culture too quickly
Even by the time that we haven’t moved to a new country yet, we are already making assumptions about this new cultural environment. That is absolutely normal since it is an ordinary function of the brain to attempt to predict the behaviour of the people in that new environment. The problem here is that our brain is using behavioural patterns that we have learned in the cultures that we are familiar with to predict the behaviour of people from the new cultural environment.
Obviously, these assumptions that we are making do not work very well in the new cultural environment. Although we can never escape making them, we can choose to be skeptical about believing them. Rather than treating them as facts about the new culture, we should treat them like hypothesis that need to be tested.
For any assumption that you are making about the new cultural environment, make sure that you are doing your research to confirm its validity. Observe the behaviour of a great number of people from the new culture and see if you can really see a deeply ingrained pattern there. Talk to people who understand the local culture very well and ask them about their own perspectives about this issue. Try to find information about this behaviour from different sources such as books about your host culture or even the internet.
Make sure that you are always doing your homework. For every assumption that you make, take your time to see whether you can find enough evidence to confirm this hypothesis.
What are the next steps?
Now I want you to think back to your own experiences while living overseas. Have you made some of these mistakes yourself? If yes, what can you do in the future to avoid doing them again? How can you prepare yourself for your time overseas in order to avoid cultural faux pas as much as possible, while staying true to your own self?
Feel free to share your thoughts on these questions in the comments below!