Your New International Assignment: How to Navigate the Inevitable Culture Shock

Matthew MacLachlan

13 Apr 2015

Every country, nation and society has its own unique culture.  Entering any environment that is different to our own culture may involve going through a series of mental and emotional processes, both positive and negative.  The process of adaptation or integration to a new culture is known as acculturation, and at some stage or other, visitors, immigrants and professional international assignees and their families will all experience culture shock.

What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock happens when we apply our own personal cultural values to a new cultural context: the clash of mismatched assumptions and expectations can have a psychological and sometimes a physical impact.  Some people assume that the more a culture diverges from our own, the more dramatic or traumatic the culture shock will be. There are many ways to deal with culture shock – being prepared for it and recognising its “symptoms” is key to overcoming the inevitable highs and lows you will experience. If your company offers you cultural training – grab it with both hands!

Expatriates moving from the US to the UK is an obvious example where culture shock can happen as we might assume that sharing a common language and other surface level cultural traits would make the transition smoother.  However, in many cases a move to a culturally “close” country may be harder because the differences are much less noticeable at a surface level, so the clash is more unexpected.  Or perhaps the ‘newcomer’ had done less to prepare themselves and learn about the new culture before their departure assuming that it would be the same.

Culture Shock


What Does Acculturation Really Mean?

The acculturation process involves adopting some of the cultural traits or social patterns of another group or culture and becoming more integrated into that group.  This phenomenon is usually related to the minority group or newcomer adopting the values and beliefs of the dominant or host culture.  In other words they assimilate or integrate into the dominant culture.  Sometimes, the acculturation process involves fighting against, rather then working with, other cultures in the social environment.  This can result in separation, segregation and marginalisation.

Acculturation is a multi-dimensional process involving language, cultural beliefs and values and can lead to six different outcomes:


This involves taking on the new culture’s beliefs, values and norms by giving up individual characteristics to build a new homogenised cultural identity.  Many groups also tend to merge and form new groups – what is commonly known as a melting pot.

An example of this might be the West Indian immigrants to the UK in the 1950s who have largely merged into British society.  Both the immigrant culture and British culture changed as a result.


This is when the original cultural identity of a group is maintained but at the same time the group is integrated into a larger society and maintains good relationships with other cultures within this society.

The Italian community in the US is a good example of integration.  Those who identify themselves as Italian are fully immersed in the US culture, but retain a uniquely Italian flavour in their customs and behaviours.


This occurs when groups or individuals do not want to maintain positive relationships with members of other groups within the host society but prefer to maintain their own cultural characteristics.

This is typified by some of the native races in Northern Canada who both geographically and socially have little participation in modern Canadian society


This occurs when the more politically and economically powerful culture within the country or society does not want any contact with other cultural groups.

South Africa in the 1980s is the obvious example of segregation


This happens when a minority group in a larger society choose not to participate in this society in order to maintain its own way of life.

This is typical of some religious minorities, such as the Amish in the US, having shut out all contact with the host culture


This develops when an individual or a group neither retains their own cultural heritage nor maintains positive contact with the dominant group in the society.  This is characterised by alienation and confusion.

Marginalisation is most frequently found in the teenage children of expatriates who have moved frequently, and thus have no real links to their “home” culture but also find it hard to identify with the host culture

Dealing with Culture Shock

Acculturation has become a controversial topic but understanding this process and being able to identify the symptoms of culture shock can help all groups involved to recognise the physical, psychological and mental impact of living and working within another culture, whether in the context of a global organisation or at a broader societal level.

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