Culture shock in the expatriate family

Culture shock and its stages

As a loose definition, culture shock is a feeling of disorientation we experience when we are exposed to an unfamiliar environment and we find ourselves confronted by attitudes, customs, communication and other aspects of life that differ to our own. Culture shock is often classified as a four-stage process, with each stage varying in length according to the individual or sometimes skipped altogether. Expatriates can often experience some form of culture shock and even those with significant international experience may be surprised by culture shock during a third or fourth international move.

1. The honeymoon stage: At first the expat is fascinated and infatuated with the new culture and excited to be in a new environment. If on a short-term assignment, the expat may remain in this phase and feel only positively towards their experience.

2. The frustration stage: As the honeymoon phases starts to wear off, the expatriate may start to experience feelings of fatigue and longing for familiarity. Often frustration is associated with language barriers, transportation issues, or smaller mishaps that may become more major when coupled with the high stress of an unfamiliar place. For instance, an expat from Munich living in Los Angeles may be frustrated by the lack of efficient public transportation. Or it may feel devastating when the internet crashes at home or the local supermarket no longer stocks a favourite treat.

3. The adjustment stage: This is where expatriates start to adjust their reactions to the same situations that frustrated them before. The expat may have learnt some of the language or cultural norms and developed a routine regarding transport or other daily activities. Simply attempting to communicate in the local language or find out more about the culture may make the locals more open and understanding.

4. The acceptance stage: This doesn’t necessarily equate to a complete understanding of the local culture or total assimilation. But a level of familiarity allows expats to be comfortable in their new surroundings. They now have established a set of friends, some understanding of the language and know how to get things done.

Expat workers and their families  

Cross-cultural challenges and culture shock are often cited as key reasons why assignments fail and companies sending employees abroad need to be aware of and prepare their expatriates for these challenges. A survey by Right Management in 2013 found that more than 42% of international assignments were expected to fail. This could be either by an early termination of the assignment and return home, or an overall poor job performance. Both situations can incur significant costs to the company as well as causing damaged reputation, project delays and employee attrition. 

Expatriate employees themselves may cycle through the stages of culture shock relatively painlessly. This is because they have a structured support system and daily routine in their professional context which can help them to assimilate. However, it can often be much more difficult for accompanying family members to leave the frustration stage of culture shock.  The non-working partner and/or children may feel that they have been forced to make the move and leave behind their friends and interests with no real motivation to adjust and accept the new culture. Children at least will have the opportunity for social interaction in school but the “trailing spouse” may find it particularly difficult to assimilate without a workplace or school environment. In the Cartus 2014 Global Mobility survey 76% of respondents indicated that “family or personal circumstances” was the top reason for rejecting an international assignment. Research also shows that when assignments finish early it is often because the family has been unhappy. 

Preparation is key

Culture shock can be unavoidable, but awareness of its stages and symptoms can help expatriates and their families to reduce its impact. It is important for families to communicate openly about their concerns and struggles both before their move and throughout their stay.  Formal support such as intercultural training and coaching can offer the practical guidance and cultural knowledge that an expat family needs to adjust to their new environment and make their stay a positive experience. The important thing is to establish practical strategies and create a support network to help build comfort levels on arrival and make it easier to develop a routine.

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