How to prepare for culture shock when working abroad

Els - AcademicTransfer
18 Jul ’19

‘French do love forms! They are the most bureaucratic bunch of people I have ever encountered’. These were my thoughts after living several weeks in France. In 2008 I decided to study half a year in my favorite country. The first weeks I lived my française dream: blue skies, bright sun, pain au chocolat and the smell of lavendel. Walking through the narrow streets of Montpellier: it couldn’t get any better than this. 

These sunny thoughts lasted until I really needed to make something happen. Like opening a bank account, get a student card, sign into courses, get a pass for the tramway, get a prepaid telephone card. Everything took so much time and paperwork. The inefficiency and bureaucracy frustrated me a lot. For me it felt that everything was better organized in the Netherlands. 

I wasn’t aware of the fact that when moving abroad we all go through four stages of culture shock to a certain extent. During my Masters Intercultural Communication I came across anthropologist Oberg (1960), who studied culture shock and how to prepare for it. Let’s share some insights with you!

The four stages of culture shock:

1. The honeymoon

In the first days or weeks of living abroad everything is new and exciting. You are fascinated by the people and their way of living. During the honeymoon phase you have a positive attitude about everything and you focus on the similarities between your home country and the host country.

2. Crisis

But honeymoons don’t last forever. Within several weeks or months you start encountering some irritations and frustrations. You realize that it’s not just a holiday but you seriously have to cope with the condition of life in the host country. You focus more and more on the differences between the two cultures. This leads to stereotyping and national generalisations. 

3. Adjustment

After several months you’ve learned some of the language and local habits. It’s still not easy, but you are able to handle it. You start to understand how you can operate in this new culture.

4. Acceptation

The last stage is characterized by acceptation. You accept the customs of the host country as just another way of living. You can function effectively in this new culture. You’ll be missing things about the country when leaving.  

(5. Reentry shock)

When going home, you might be confronted with a reentry shock. Everything in your home country stayed exactly the same as before you left and therefore may feel a bit boring. Besides that you might have changed as a person while living in another country and therefore how you feel about your home country can be changed too. 

How can you minimize the effects of culture shock?

The best way to minimize the effect of culture shock is to be prepared. The more you know about the culture, habits and the ways of communication of the host country in advance, the lesser the effect of culture shock will be. You will always encounter some culture shock, but with a good preparation you will be less surprised when differences occur. And you will be able to adjust quicker.

It’s also very helpful to have a cultural self-awareness. When you are aware of your own cultural habits and why you do the things you do, then it’s also easier to understand other cultural habits. 

And finally a flexible, adventurous and patient attitude is beneficial as well. Don’t see the local people as acting weird, but try to think that they act normal in their culture. 

In the end living abroad made me a richer person. I developed intercultural skills and became more self-aware. An experience of personal and cultural growth which I wish everyone to have. Like to know more about the Netherlands? Visit our platform Factcards for all information needed when considering a career in research in the Netherlands.

Reference: Oberg, K. (1960). Culture shock: Adjustments to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, July-August: 177-82.

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