Arriving in a new country or culture is something every traveler and expat experiences differently.
For some, the expat experience is full of excitement at the new experiences and opportunities afforded by the change, for others, even the prospect of the expat experience it is largely one of fear, fear of the changes they must undertake, of the need to learn different ways to function in their new environment.
Regardless of the emotions associated with the experience, the demands of cultural assimilation associated with undertaking an expat deployment are complex, demanding and little understood by anyone other than those who have lived it.
For most people, cultural assimilation is a combination of the two, sitting somewhere between fear of the unknown and excitement at the prospect, expectation and trepidation.
Arrival And Early Cultural Assimilation Issues
Emerging into your new, temporary, home country through the doors at the airport, train or ferry terminal, having cleared customs and immigration, you quickly find yourself needing to start to understand customs of a different nature. You need to come to terms with language, monetary and cultural differences of your host country. To understand different ways and methods of working, different communication structures and levels of individuality, power distances, uncertainty avoidance levels different to your home, different views of the future and the past and different levels of masculinity.
The new arrival may feel that they find themselves in a parallel universe. A new world where they look and dress like the residents of their host country but don’t understand the language. A place where they find themselves confused at simple things like road crossings (do they look right or left before stepping out as the traffic may well be on the opposite side to what they are used to).
It is a parallel world where you have problems deciding what to eat when you can’t read a menu, or understand the labels on packages in the stores. Once you have managed to get your food, how do you pay for it if you don’t have an understanding of the local currency, should you tip or not? and if you do, how much should it be, so many questions…
The challenges of cultural assimilation are, quite literally, everywhere.
The Public Challenges Of Cultural Assimilation
In public, should the new arrival make eye contact with the locals? is it socially acceptable or a sign of disrespect or intimidation?. Even determining which side of the pavement to walk on can be confusing, Typically, people from countries that drive on the right tend to also walk to the right, while those from countries which drive on the left would also tend to walk to the left, leading to some awkward encounters on both footpaths and stairs, with both parties confused about what is happening. If the unwary traveller is not careful, these small yet confusing differences can lead to levels of xenophobia, where suddenly everything new and different is to be treated with fear and suspicion.
Cultural Assimilation In The Workplace
It is in the workplace where most expat’s will face their most challenging cultural assimilation issues. They have arrived from a culture they understood and a workplace where they knew their position into a strange world. They need to work out how to address their new colleagues, they need to determine how the hierarchy works, whether it is formal and highly structured or informal and flat.
The new expat needs to consider how they deal with their office peers and how they issue and receive instructions. Then there are the challenges in decision making, many new expats have failed to grasp the different decision making processes of their new environment and quickly caused offense to their new colleagues. This can be through autonomously making decisions in a collaborative culture or asking for input from subordinates in a very dictatorial culture. All of these issues are waiting to trip up the novice expat.
Navigating the expat minefield is complex and challenging. Given time, support and experience new arrival can quickly become a productive and valuable partner in their new home but these early days, weeks and months can cause a lot of challenges during the process of cultural assimilation.
All of these subtle differences and many more can take even the most seasoned expat by surprise when they eventuate. No matter how well prepared the expat may be, there is always something new to experience. However, over time, as with most other things in life, everyone adapts to the changes and, what was only recently a surprising, confusing and worrying aspect of the new culture is suddenly the normal way to behave, until, that is, the next new things appears to be understood and adapted to.
Share your experiences
Do you have experiences with cultural assimilation you would like to share? if so, we would love to hear from you.
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