For most people, coming to terms with all of the changes involved when moving to a new country and experiencing new cultures and the culture shock associated with the move is a daunting experience. After a few days, weeks or, in rarer cases, months, what initially felt strange and possibly threatening, starts to feel more usual. Yes, you most likely still can’t understand much of the language, many of the local customs and manners still confuse you, but you are starting to find your way around, both geographically, which is very useful, and, more importantly, mentally.
Since the mental part of the settling period is the one that catches many people out, this part needs to be recognised and planned for where possible. Failing to come to terms with the mental shift required of any move is one of the most frequent reason secondments will fail and individuals will return home, often vowing never again to try to live in another culture.
This adaptation phase will, for many, be the make or break stage. The traveler will either go from experiencing the new culture as a challenge into it becoming a familiar, if slightly unusual world or from a challenge into a world of differences they simply do not believe they can come to terms with and need to leave as soon as possible.
Adapting To New Cultures
For those who do start to adapt, and even those who think they may never adapt but, for whatever reason, stay in country, the world in which they spend their days suddenly becomes much clearer. They will typically begin to feel comfortable moving around the country, even if they can’t read the street signs they at least develop a familiarity with their environment, familiarity with streets and public transport. This level of spacial comfort is important to avoid feeling like you are confined to one building, street or suburb.
Items in the stores and restaurants, while still alien in some respects, at least start to be identified to the point where the visitor feels they can start to select items with some level of assurance that they are getting what they expect. That bottle that looks so much like spring water, but turned out to be a local spirit, is at least now know for what it is and can be bought or overlooked with the knowledge that it is now well known.
Similarly, meals in restaurants become less threatening and more inviting as your comfort level and understanding of the different cuisine develops, again, some individuals may never enjoy the local food, it may be too bland, too spicy, too sweet or not sweet enough, but for others the local food and dining experience will become a major attraction as part of the new culture.
As time passes, this level of familiarity will build, until virtually everything in the new environment feels as familiar as the travelers original home and, with enough time and work, even language will start to be known. Language starts with a few faltering words at first, usually numbers, greetings and the occasional food or drink name, drinks and favourite foods typically. Then short sentences created using the new known words, and eventually more and more structured conversational sentences.
As with most things, time, patience and a little effort will make the difference for those who are comfortable with the transition. For those who are not comfortable, the best option may be to fully assess their situation and either try to see things through in the hopes of settling, or to remove themselves from the alien environment until either such time as they are comfortable trying again at some future point in their career or to continue their work from their home office.
Right Of Return
Expat and international work is not for everyone, and while it may seem exciting and glamorous to those who have never tried it, to some it is a terrifying thing that they will strive to avoid. Each individual and family will react differently when placed into an alien environment and should be allowed to have the time to adapt and, if this is not possible, to return to their home without corporate or personal penalty.
Share your experiences
Do you have any experiences with adapting to new cultures in project teams you have been a part of that you would like to share? If so, we would love to hear from you.
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