After analysing the various aspects of cultural adjustment in the previous article (Intercultural Adjustment- where exactly to begin), we tried to decode the values of human connections, to outline the importance of acknowledgement of cultural differences. 

Digging further into the underlying aspects of cultural differences and their impact on Expat life, let us try and deep dive into the state of cultural shock that comes after being exposed to those differences! There surely would be some techniques to cope with this state of discomfort and come out as a more confident and well adjusted expat.

This isn’t your first time experiencing culture shock

How did you feel on your first day at a new school?

Or your first day at new job?

Anxious, nervous, excited, lonely, overwhelmed? Did you have lunch all by yourself or did your future best friend took pity on the newbie and accompanied you on the empty table?

Now think about the memories created with your closest friends, some of whom you might have met in that new school or at that new job, in fact maybe at that lunch table. Doesn’t that make you feel all warm and nostalgic?

That is the beauty of experiences. They are new, unfamiliar to begin with, but they turn into unforgettable memories once you accept that this unfamiliarity is nothing but an introduction to an exciting new world waiting to welcome you.

So, it is absolutely normal to feel like an outsider in your host country

If you feel like an outsider, or frustrated at not being able to ‘fit in’, just relax. 

It is common and only natural to feel homesick. You might long to go back to your home, where things are ‘normal’ and ‘make sense’. But do not let these feelings get the better of you. Beyond this zone of unfamiliarity lies a whole new experience to explore. You just need to prepare yourself to embrace this change and see it more as a cultural potpourri, than a culture shock.

Suggested Activity

We would like to suggest a simple exercise to you here. 

  • Write down the name of the country, where you wish to go and stay for a few days, months or years even
  • Jot down all that you want to do there. Travel, explore, party, meet new people, try local food, shopping, enjoy the local experiences the place is famous for, etc etc
  • Now just visualise yourself doing all that, just the way you want to

Does that feeling make you want to book a flight right away? 

That visualisation and those feelings of thrill, novelty and foresight of new memories, is what lies beyond the first few hard steps of feeling like an ‘outsider’. So hang in there.

Trust the inherent goodness of humanity, be it any country or culture

Anthropologically, humans increase their guards and switch to self-defence mode in an unfamiliar environment. So our first instinct as expats, or foreigner in a country tends to make us see the natives as ‘the other people’. Specifically expat professionals usually experience intergroup conflicts when they work in a new culture, which intensifies the barriers between ‘self’ and ‘others’. This further develops a belief that the ‘other’ will protect only their own interests; and their interests will, therefore, not be protected, which leads to stress emanating out of cultural imbalances. 

But here we have to remember that no such conflicts are intentional. They are just consequential to lack of communication or misrepresented/ misunderstood communication, which leads to suspicion and lack of trust. Your team members are aware how difficult it is for you to be in a new country, and just like you, they are trying hard to make this work. But many things might get lost in translation, literally and metaphorically. Biased perceptions, insecurities, language barriers or just different ways of expressing thoughts, even if in the same language. 

Don’t be embarrassed about feeling vulnerable, or consider it a battle of ‘you’ against ‘others’. You have already taken a brave decision of uprooting and rerooting your entire life. And even the ‘others’ are amazed at your resilience and spirit of adventure. Reach out to them for help. Before being a citizen of any country, or follower of any faith or custom, they are just humans like you.

Culture extends beyond face value

A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the souls of its people

-Mahtma Gandhi

If we throw some light to what Mahatma Gandhi interestingly quoted, the key to embracing any culture is to feel connected with the people of that country, which emanates from understanding the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘who’ of them. One of the Post-Freudian Approaches to studying personality is ‘Cultural Approach’ that attempts to understand personality in relation to the features of ecological and cultural environment, which clearly substantiates that culture does play a major role in shaping and even changing a person’s personality. Looking at the other end of the spectrum – as people evolve, so do their customs, values, beliefs and hence does the culture, which essentially is a collective of all of these. Researchers in fact map this process of transmission and change to Darwin’s principle of descent with modification through natural selection.

  • Irrespective of any era of Indian history, there are tales of lovelorn poets, musical nights or dance to celebrate any occasion. These customs have evolved into what the world today knows as the colourful and entertaining Bollywood
  • An Indian term ’jugaad’ has been making world waves for long. But jugaad is nothing, but innovation. Scarcity of resources, be it time or money, have made Indians develop some really innovative and effective solutions. You would be surprised to know that India’s first rocket was carried to the space station in parts over a bicycle, due to funds limitation. Maybe that innovative mindset explains the surge of startups and entrepreneurial ambitions in India
  • It’s a joke that Indian calendar has some or the other festival every month. India is a land where almost all the religions of the world coexist and festivals of all the religious faiths are celebrated freely and with equal vigour. More than anything, it gives people a chance to spend time with their families and even extended families, which is the basis of relationships in India.

So, if you really wish to understand why locals in your host country behave the way they do, dig into some research about the history of the country, the struggles which their country faced and which unified them into that identifiable collective, their ways of celebrating life, daily routines, etc. You will realise that they are just like you, just with a different back story.

Summing it Up

So make a list of all the things that bother you about your host country and the people there. Try to decode the ‘why’ behind some of those, but with the intent to realise that ’visualisation’ you had, of a wonderful expat stay! And if you are not able to decipher the ‘why’s yet, just go with the flow. After all, you are on an adventure. So, let the mysteries unfold as the time comes.

 In the next and the last article of this series, we will discuss some important pointers on how to create a shared cultural comfort zone, by balancing your individuality with cultural homogeneity. 

Please do share your views on how you or your expat friends perceived the cultural changes – as a cultural potpourri or a cultural shock?


Sad employee photo created by yanalya –