Cultural adjustment is easier said than practiced. If you are an expat, or a Global Mobility professional, the word ‘inter-cultural differences’ might be among your biggest concerns. But just because they seem daunting, does not mean that they become roadblocks in your expat experience. In fact what may seem like a concern, might actually be a blessed opportunity , but only if understood in-depth and addressed well.

Inter-cultural experts at Expat Orbit have broken down the process of inter-cultural adjustment into three steps, based on the study of human psychology and socio-cultural adjustments.

We shall be covering each of these steps in this three part series on Inter-cultural Immersion. In this first article of the series, let us look at the first step – Acknowledgement and Acceptance.

Acknowledgement – The ‘First’ Step for an Expat

‘I am fine’ – This is probably one of the most dangerous statements in human communication, if what you say and what you feel are not in sync. Acknowledging that you are struggling, is the first step towards identifying the root cause of your discomfort and towards eventually addressing it. “I am struggling to explain myself to my colleagues at work” or “I am struggling to make friends in this new country”, is a real struggle. A struggle that in most cases, is the underlying cause of numerous struggles that you or your expat friends grapple with, in an overseas assignment.

What is the big deal about cultural differences?

As quoted by Ruth Benedict – famous Anthropologist and Author of ‘Patterns of Culture’ and the revered ‘The Chrysantheums and the Sword’:

The crucial differences that distinguish human societies and human beings are not biological. They are cultural”

‘Culture’ is nothing but a culmination of shared beliefs, customs, values and ways of life, among a group of people that co-exist in a defined dimension, be it in a family, a locality, a company or even a country. As per Human Psychology, all human beings, irrespective of nationality or gender, have an innate need to interact with and relate to others, and to explain their own as well as others’ behaviour. At the same time, our own behaviour gets influenced by, and evolves as a response to other individuals and groups. This influence could be even more powerful when it comes from a culture that is different from our own.

Unlearning is the key to learning a new culture

With the global movement at pace, expats all around the world get trapped in such mental structures or social schemas that contain over-generalised beliefs about a particular group, which often leads to and strengthens prejudices. This is nothing but a vicious cycle that is passed from one generation to another in every culture. We form pre-conceived notions, attitudes, or thoughts and behavioural tendencies, based on influences from popular media, grapevine, experiences of reference groups that comprise of people of different personalities, albeit same nationality.

When an expat moves to a new country, he/she is almost bound to experience such group polarisation initially. But eventually, it helps to remove the pre-assumed glasses and start observing the environment from your own perspective.

The more you observe, the more you will identify a different, much adaptable and even a more preferable cultural environment, as compared to your pre-conceived notions.

Many expats have expressed that before they came to India, they thought it was all about ‘curry’ and ‘Bollywood’, but they discovered a whole new dimension of not just India, but of their own personality when they arrived in India. It is not a country, but the experiences that you subject yourself to which brings out newer perspectives.

Strength lies in the differences, not in similarities

Differences are not always bad. In fact, they present opportunities to adopt from each other, and adapt into a much evolved culture. India’s huge cultural diversity is symbolic of such evolution of shared beliefs and adaptability. India has adapted bits from many foreign cultures and gives enough space for everyone to develop their own comfort zone.

Credit yourself for taking that first step of acknowledging and observing the differences

The more we observe our own culture and acknowledge the differences vis-a-vis other cultures, higher would be the probability to evolve into a shared culture that balances cognisance of our individualities and an adaptable culture, which we can begin to identify and feel comfortable with. Thus making the process of social cognition easier. As global professionals, keeping things in perspective is the key. Pushing yourself through the initial potential obstacles in the new culture is sufficient to give yourself the credit of gradually succeeding in settling-in.

Summing it up

One of the first observations made by Norman Triplett about social behaviour in Psychology was that individuals show better performance in the presence of others, than when they are performing alone, which was highlighted by the concept of social facilitation. During his research, Triplett noticed that a cyclist’s performance was facilitated when training in a group, than when training alone. So the presence of colleagues or neighbours or friends of different values and cultural upbringing, could actually enhance your workplace performance and expat experiences, if you continue to engage with these challenges.

It may take some time, but gradually as a bunch of people becomes more cohesive, all the members in the group start to think, feel and act as a social unit and less like isolated individuals from different cultures.

Let us know your views on the importance of acknowledging cultural differences, rather than ignoring them. In our next article in the Cultural Immersion series, we will talk about how to make sense of the cultural differences observed in a foreign country, rather than consider it a culture-shock.

This article is compiled by Expat Orbit team, based on extensive research and views of cultural experts.