Working and living overseas can be one of life's truly enriching experiences. For some however, adjustment to the new environment is very difficult. Four distinct stages of adjustment are known to occur and being aware of these stages along with adequate pre-travel preparation will greatly reduce culture shock and help integration into the new environment.
Culture shock is the failure of an individual to adjust to a new physical and cultural environment. Common symptoms of culture shock include low-level anxiety, depression, lethargy, and lack of enthusiasm, boredom, excessive sleeping, irritability, homesickness and increased susceptibility to disease. These are unpleasant to the individual and can be incredibly costly (20-30% of workers require premature repatriation). It is not only the worker who is affected, but also the family and often it is the inability of the family to adjust that result in early repatriation. Culture shock can also occur on return to the original culture, especially after prolonged stays in foreign countries.
Modern living in our home environment produces stresses to which most of us adapt. Working in a new environment produces a whole range of new stresses (as shown below).
|The Country||The Job or Position||The Community The Culture|
|Jet lag||Need for new skills||Transportation Customs|
|Weather||New responsibilities||Communication Social behaviour|
|Food||New colleagues||Shops and services Values and attitudes|
|Absence of family & friends|
Excessive stress can produce psychological problems and impaired immune function leading to susceptibility to various diseases or worsening of chronic illness.
People usually go through distinct stages of adjustment during their time overseas. Understanding these can help reduce culture shock.
Over the first week or so the new environment appears very exotic and we feel very positive. There is generally little interaction with the new environment at this stage.
In this stage, the individual begins to interact with the culture, but may find the behaviour of the people unusual and unpredictable, which triggers reaction and dislike of the culture. This reaction can cause anxiety, stress and withdrawal. The individual may begin to criticise the culture, the people and may want to go home. This stress combined with incomplete physical adaptation to the new environment predisposes to illness. This stage often occurs 2-4 weeks after arrival. Staying stuck in this stage is a major cause of early home repatriation, especially in the non-working partner. Support through this phase along with an awareness of its temporary nature is vital.
In this stage, the individual begins to understand the behaviour of the people and feels more comfortable with the culture. The individual feels less isolated as the customs and conditions become more familiar. They learn to get around the community and country, and regain a sense of humour. This stage generally occurs in the second month.
In the final stage, the individual enjoys being in the culture and they function easily. Positive aspects of the new culture are perceived and a sense of belonging begins. The stages of adjustment are represented in this diagram
A number of techniques can minimise culture shock and speed adjustment. Everyone suffers from a degree of culture shock. Just knowing this will help adjustment.
Updated August 2021.