Dealing with Culture Shock: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Matthew MacLachlan

23 Aug 2016

Your company has offered you an attractive relocation to an appealing destination. It’s the perfect fit for you and your career. Your family is on board with the offer, your partner has a career that can be continued elsewhere and your children seem ready for the adventure.

But has anyone told you to prepare for the inevitable culture shock that you and your family will face? Dealing with culture shock is possible when well prepared. Read on for practical tips.

Dealing with culture shock

Your relocation company has advised you about what you can and cannot ship to your new country. The initial paperwork is being taken care of so you can legally make your move and start your new job. Each member of your family has a survival phrasebook of the language spoken in your new country. You and your family are ready to go. So what can go wrong? Lots! Read on…

Culture Shock – Quick Definition

Culture shock happens to most expatriates. Sometimes it is amusing

Culture shock happens to most expatriates. Sometimes it is amusing. Sometimes it is a nuance that is easy to adapt to. Sometimes things are simply different.

But other times it is an irritation or worse – an experience unpleasant enough to make you wonder if you have made the right decision to leave the comforts of home for a place that doesn’t fit with your lifestyle or your values quite as well as you thought.

Dealing with culture shock is one of the key challenges an international assignee and his/her family face. It doesn’t go away – it needs to be faced head on.

Expectations and Realities

In an article published in Business Insider UK, an American expatriate highlights some of her observations when she relocated to France. Although many of her observations might seem simplistic to some and obvious to others, they were nevertheless real to her.

And, even if her observations seem elementary on the surface, they illustrate a series of issues that commonly arise when relocating to another country and experiencing culture shock, whether you are an American moving to France or to China.

Cultural Characteristics

  • Priorities

Our American expatriate found France to have very different attitudes toward meal times:

  • They were at times different to her expectations – the French don’t eat dinner at 5pm
  • The French also value lunchtime and, rather than eat a sandwich at their desk, they go out for their lunch hour and – have lunch

With these examples, our expat is illustrating many cultural characteristics that are different to hers. These include work-life balance, the relative importance and priorities of everyday lifestyle choices, and even the pace of an ordinary day.

  • Space

Our American expatriate observed, from her perspective, parking spaces are tight and not always easily found. Here, she is illustrating her expectations of space and perhaps convenience.

Many readers would find it interesting that she is mentioning driving a car in Paris in the first place and question her need/choice to do so. This may also reflect on her sense of individualism.

  • Individualism

Some Americans can be described as inward looking, showing little knowledge of how things can work abroad

The issue of individualism and collective responsibility is also raised through her observations of the French medical system. Coming from the US, where the availability of medical care is only now starting to expand to more of its citizens, our expat expressed culture shock at how accessible health care is in France, alongside her astonishment about the excellent quality of care and the reasonable costs for medication.

In addition, some Americans can be described as inward looking, showing little knowledge of how things can work abroad and showing surprise if they appear to be better than ‘back home’.

  • Status

Showing status was also nicely illustrated in the article. Our expat noted the difference between the importance of appearance and grooming in public as well – her expectations of running errands in very casual clothing – as the relative paucity of owning lots of ‘stuff’ and the lack of a WalMart equivalent in France (although she must not have ventured out very often to some of the Parisian suburbs).

Our expat noted the difference between the importance of appearance and grooming in public as well

  • Rules

In our final example, our American expatriate discovered that cultures might also have different attitudes to following the rules. Her caution about not relying on pedestrian rights in Parisian traffic is justified.

Her expectations that these rules would naturally be followed are probably because, in the US, this would be the case.

Dealing with Culture Shock – Your Cultural Lens

It can be easy to gently mock some of our expat’s observations. Maybe they are not as profound as other culture combinations might note. Would a French expat place the same importance on these same issues in the US?

The manifestation of culture shock and how it is interpreted by people varies from person to person and from place to place. We all have our own cultural lens through which we see and judge the world.

And in a rapidly globalising world, organisations will continue to benefit and offer support to employees who see the world through different lenses and help them see one another more clearly.

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