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Culture Shock – How to Deal


This week’s blog post comes from our Senior Intercultural Facilitator Ruth Friedman.  Ms. Friedman grew up in London, spent a year living, working, and travelling in the United States, and has now been living and working in Belgium since 2004.  She specializes in the fields of cross-cultural and intercultural trainings, non-discrimination, and personal and career development. Ms. Friedman is recognized for her passion and enthusiasm for her work and for the safe environment that she creates which supports participants to reach their true potential.

Tips for Dealing with Culture Shock

Culture Shock is the stress reaction that often accompanies an international relocation. It arises because many of the unwritten codes, assumptions and expectations are not that same as they are back home. This can be stressful, even if you are not aware of what is happening.

The good news is that experiencing culture shock is completely normal. Almost everyone goes through it when they move countries. It applies no matter how many times you have relocated before, and it’s part of your integration process. It’s good to have a frame of reference for what’s happening, as it helps you to normalize your experience.

cultureshockCulture shock arises when you least expect it. You might expect to go through it when you move from the USA to China, because everyone knows that these cultures are so different. You might be more surprised to also get it whilst moving from Belgium to the Netherlands, or between USA and Canada, because those cultures are so similar. The small differences can be as disorienting as the larger ones when it comes to crossing cultures.

Culture shock is a kind of stress. The way in which you react to culture shock is the same as the way in which you react to other kinds of stress in your life. If you are someone that stops eating when under stress and you lose your appetite in the first weeks of your assignment, this might be a symptom of culture shock. It might be the same for your sleep patterns, or the other ways in which you would react under stress.

So how can you ease the impact of culture shock? Here are a few tips that have worked well for my clients.

1. Stop Complaining

Many expats love complaining. Unfortunately, thinking about the things that are not as good as back home only leaves you feeling miserable. You will be wishing you were on the next plane home. Complaining is a natural response when faced with challenging situations. Our brains are wired that way, and so we notice more negative things than positive.

Some people say they love complaining and they say it helps them if they vent. They say they that they feel better afterwards. The reality is that once you start complaining you tend to find other things to complain about. It can be a downward spiral, until you go and do something else.

If you are one of those people that loves to complain, and you find it difficult to stop, then make sure you only complain to other expats. Ideally only to members of your immediate family. You can even make a game out of it. Allow your Family Complaints Department to be open with very restricted office hours!

2. Be Grateful

Even if you are having a tough time settling in to your new home and new office, there is always so much to be grateful for. What a fantastic opportunity you have to visit this new and interesting country. There are so many exciting new things to discover, new foods, new languages, new friends etc . There is always so much positive to be found, even in challenging situations. Sometimes you have to look hard for it and then decide to put your attention there.

When I work with my clients I often encourage them to do a gratitude journal. You can write in a notebook or on a blog about all the things you are grateful for. Then when you are having a tough time you can go back and look through all the things that are going great in your life. It’s almost guaranteed to shift your mood.

3. Savoring

Ever had one of those really good Belgian chocolates? When you try and eat it as slowly as possible and you try and make it last as long as possible. You let all the tastes mingle in your mouth, and you really savor it. Savoring is like that but you can do it with a lot more than chocolate!

Here is an example: I am sitting here in my office – it’s a busy day – there is a lot to do. I am taking a moment to notice that the sun is shining. I can see the sunlight glistening as its reflected in the frosty grass. I notice my breathing. I am watching the traffic outside. I notice how I feel in my body – I notice a sense of expansiveness and calmness, I take it all in. For savoring to work at its best you need to create a visceral memory as well as a mental one.

4. Recall Happy Memories

Like the ones you have been savoring! The body doesn’t actually know the difference between something happening in the moment and a memory of the event. This is not about pushing away your challenges. It’s about making more space, and allowing in a positive moment as well as the challenge. You can combat culture shock by resourcing yourself. Allow yourself to connect to positive moments. You can allow both the positive memory and the challenging situation to be there.

5. Do Something you Love Every Day

This can be a simple thing, that doesn’t have to take much time. For myself, I love to sing and I usually sing in the morning in the shower. It doesn’t actually take time and I feel better for doing it. What’s important is that the thing you do, is something that gives you a lot of pleasure. Here are some examples: physical activity, playing a musical instrument, reading a bit of your novel, or connecting with someone you love. It could be planned in as quality time as a family every day. That’s a given if you have to travel a lot. The point about the activity is it should be something you REALLY enjoy.

6. Bring Something from Home that you Love

When I moved to Belgium (from the UK) I came with my big jar of Marmite and my proper English tea! It gave me something familiar from home. It wasn’t really the same as back home, as the water is different here. It still gave me a sense of comfort and that I had brought something of home with me. I still bring back tea when I visit the UK. The selection there is much wider, and my Belgian friends are always curious to see what I brought back with me this time!

7. Be Kind to Yourself

This might sound self-indulgent, but it’s not! You might be feeling that there are so many things that you have to take care of that you bulldoze through everything. There may be times when you need to do just that. In doing that you can still be kind to yourself. You can always find small moments for yourself in the midst of everything that is demanding your attention. You might think that you don’t have time.

The trick is that these moments can be very short. When you are kind to yourself and pay attention to your own needs, you will have more resources, and you will take better care of yourself. You will be able to help other people more good will and you will also have more energy for your work too. That’s got to be a good thing!

Wishing you much success on your international assignment!


– Ruth Friedman

CAI Senior Intercultural Facilitator