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Falling into Place: The Impact of Cross Cultural Adjustment (Part 2)

Before we launch into this month’s blog post, I would like to take a minute to say thank you. You, the readers of this blog, have been integral to our success over this past year. You have helped us reach people in all corners of the world, and have been an amazing support to continue the work we do. So, thank you for reading, subscribing, sharing, and cheer leading; we would not be able to do it without you! Happy Holidays and here’s to a great and exciting new year!

So, on to our topic this month: Cross Cultural Adjustment

Cross cultural adjustment can be defined as the process of change that occurs when you move to a place with a very different way of life. It can be a large part of the success or failure of life abroad, as the host country’s culture is a huge part of the expat experience. In order to understand this, let’s take a look at what culture is exactly. A culture defines the way people interact with one another, the food they eat, where they live, what they value, and how they dress. In other words, a culture provides the rules by which people live their lives in each and every country. For some places, this means that modesty, humility, and family are central to decision making, and for others, individual values, achievement, and goal setting are respected and honored.

So, how does this impact you when you move to a new place? The answer to this question will depend largely on where you move. Some places may be more easy to adapt to because they are very similar to where you are from, and some places may be more difficult because they are very different. How well and how quickly you can adjust to the host country’s culture is then impacted when the values or ways of life are drastically different from your home country. For example, if you are from a capitalist or socialist country, the idea of communism can be difficult to understand. I want to be careful in not imparting the idea you must then understand and embrace communism. You most certainly do not have to embrace things outside of your beliefs. And yet, in order to thrive in a country so different from yours, you might have to learn how to work within that culture. In other words, how can you get your needs met while navigating the choices and institutions of your host country? Better yet, how can you also enjoy the experience and leave satisfied with your overseas tour?

What does Research say about the Expat Adjustment Process?

What the research will tell you is that this process occurs over time. Success and satisfaction in a foreign culture do not happen overnight no matter how prepared you might be. Think of it like adjusting to being a new parent. If you have never had children before, you will likely have a large learning curve because you have little experience being in charge of another human being. The ability to feel adept at taking care of an infant full time will happen as time moves forward. Likewise, a person encountering a new culture will go through a series of stages over time as they learn and adjust to their very different circumstances. The same rules apply even if you are an experienced expat, because like each new child, not all countries are identical and will require different things from you.

One theory that often applies to expat life is the Cross-cultural Adjustment cycle, pictured below. The Cross-cultural Adjustment Cycle is explained in various forms of cross-cultural training for students and employees who move overseas. Learning this model can be helpful in understanding your overseas experiences as it attempts to fluidly capture the ups and downs of learning to live in a foreign country. So, let’s quickly walk through the model. As seen in the picture, the cycle begins with the honeymoon stage, which includes being very excited by the move, and enjoying all aspects of the experience. This phase is where you take all your pictures. You are fascinated about most aspects of the new culture.

The next step is culture shock, where we are confronted with some uncomfortable dissimilarities between our home and host countries. When experiencing culture shock, daily life can seem overwhelming from general understanding of a new language to learning how to navigate living in a new place. This leads to the first adjustment period, where we attempt to accommodate these differences and figure out what to do with them. When experiencing an initial adjustment, culture shock has worn off and you feel more comfortable with the language, ways of doing things, and the daily routine.

Sometimes, even though we have begun to adapt and change, we can still feel alone or like there is nothing else we can do to fix our situation, causing mental isolation. This stage creeps in after you have been away from family and friends for a significant amount of time, and you continue to feel like a stranger who cannot express themselves in a way that makes you feel understood. This part of the cycle is often where expats report feeling homesick and lonely.

If we are able to move beyond this loneliness, we can begin to integrate our host and home cultures through accepting our circumstances, and affecting change where we can. Though, acceptance and integration does not suggest that somehow you magically love your new country and culture. Acceptance and integration is the point where you are firmly rooted in new routines that seem less of a challenge, where you have developed social networks that are meaningful, and where the culture seems less ‘foreign.’ As a result, your self-confidence is much higher and there is a sense of security regarding who you are in this new place.

What we know, however, is that we do not always experience cross cultural adjustment sequentially, so I do not want you to think that you are going to always experience each stage one after another. We can go through different stages at different times, and we can even go back and forth multiple times as things come up. For example, a divorce can land you back in the “frustration” stage or “mental isolation” point in the adjustment cycle. If we think about the adjustment process this ever changing way, the model begins to look more like this:

When we look at this new model, we see that adjustment is not linear, and indeed, neither are many life experiences. Change is normal and so is your adjustment to it.

Success Abroad: How Do I Make It Happen?

In order to feel satisfied overseas in a foreign culture, please first give yourself and your family some time. It sounds simple, but we often forget that we are human, and we simply need time to cope with new experiences and make sense of things. Barring extenuating circumstances, I would say give yourself at least 3 months and re-evaluate. You may not feel like you are at home in this time, but it should be enough to get settled in, to decide what needs to you have, and how to meet them (or at least who to talk to). Think of it like the time it takes for glitter to settle in the air, and if you can, enjoy watching it fall into place.

Secondly, knowledge is power in so many ways. Understanding both other expat experiences, and the perspective of your host culture are important to your success. The reason for this is because if you know what to expect and what will be expected of you, then you have to tools to prepare a realistic course of action. For example, if you are affiliated with an embassy or existing business, you can use the knowledge of people already in country to help you know what to bring with you so you can enjoy your stay. It is hard for many Americans to understand that there are countries that do not thrive on peanut butter or Ranch dressing, but there are many that do! Understanding your host culture’s perspective will give you the opportunity not only to try new things, but to understand how others live and see the world. This information helps you to work within the culture and meet your family’s needs while being respectful to the needs of the people who call it home. It could also mean incorporating some things from the culture into your own routine, and who knows, you might even take some of these things with you! We can tell you that from living in Sweden, we love the concept of eating “fika” and will probably continue that tradition moving forward.

Lastly, know that nothing lasts forever. Expat life, especially in the Foreign Service, often involves multiple relocations, if not rhythmically every 2-3 years over the lifetime of a career. This means that if you end up in a place you just cannot seem to tolerate, you will be lucky enough to leave there again shortly. Not every place is made for everyone, and not everyone is made for every place. This is normal, expected, and you are not alone in this experience. If this is you right now, try to find some others who feel the same way and band together to do things that you can enjoy during your time there. Maybe weekly movie nights, cookie exchanges, and BBQ’s could be ways to pass the time. It can also be helpful sometimes to create a calendar of how many months are left on your tour, so that you can cross off each one as it passes. No matter how you plan to spend your time though, you will get through this experience. Hope is one of the wonderful things we are reminded of this holiday season, but it is true year round. If you can find positive things to hold on to, and know that your time in your host country is limited, it might help you to make the most of your time and to know that other opportunities are not far away.

Here Are The Success Steps In Short Form:

1. Give yourself and your family time to settle.

2. Understand your host culture and how others have coped with it.

3. Know that nothing lasts forever; you will get through this!

Before we close, we want to say thank you one last time. We value and appreciate all of you, and are excited for another year full of adventures together. Cheers for a happy and healthy 2018!

Happy Holidays!

Drs. Sanness and Nelson

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