ABC of Expat Woman’s Life: C – Culture Shock

There may already be many books and articles about culture shock but I feel there can never be enough attention to that topic. When I first moved to the Netherlands seven years ago, I did not know much about culture shock. I thought if I move to a country in Asia or Africa then there is a big chance that something like culture shock will hit me.

Moving from Poland to the Netherlands did not worry me as far as cultural differences are concerned. How naive can one be.
I continued my life in the Netherlands and went through all phases of culture shock without even realising it. Certain parts of this article may sound obvious to some but others may find them quite useful; understanding what you are going through can make the whole process of acculturation much less bumpy.

First, I want to start with the definition of the culture. The word “culture” has its origin in Latin and was initially used as agri cultura that meant cultivation of the soil. Later, it was used as a metaphor by philosopher Cicero cultura amini, cultivation of the soul in the meaning of human development.

Today, we use “culture” to describe a system where people share the same values, laws, believes, language, philosophy and knowledge.

We are not aware of the culture until we start socialising (family, school, society etc.); a blueprint that we will always use to understand the world and to give meaning to experiences and things around us. People of the same culture share the same way of experiencing, thinking of and solving problems that come on their way. They understand each other because they share the same system.

Put simply, culture provides “glasses” through which we perceive and understand the world.

So, what happens when two people of different cultures meet? They both wear different pairs of glasses. Even if they communicate in the same language, meanings and interpretations of the same things can vary significantly. This process can be very frustrating.

Culture shock
Now, let’s say you are going to live in a new country and thus, culture. It is not just one person that wears different glasses, it is everyone; culture shock! The bad news is it is to a certain extent inevitable. The good news is that it is manageable.

So, the roots of a culture shock lie on the fact that everything you have learned before (self-evident truths) are to a certain extent not valid any more. Starting with the “essentials” like religion, values, language and down to small details as visiting the doctor or washing the dishes.

Things are just different. The words do not mean the same any more. We cannot and should not take anything for granted any more.

Culture shock phases
> Honeymoon phase – right after arrival
It can last from a few days to a few months. You are fascinated; new food, new people, a new life is lying ahead of you. As the name itself indicates, this phase does not last long.

> Negotiation phase – difficult & painful
You are not able to make yourself understood and / or understand others. In this phase, people often feel anxious, sad, helpless or depressed. They may sleep, eat and drink excessively, feel homesick and abandon their social life. After weeks or months of struggle, some people go naturally out of this phase and start developing their own strategies to deal with the new culture and reality. Others might need a helping hand to reach that stage.

> Adjustment phase – familiarise
You become familiar with your new culture, its rituals and customs. You develop new coping strategies and ways to resolve problems.

> Mastery phase – time to enjoy
The last phase is when you feel comfortable with the local culture and fully enjoy what it has to offer. It does not mean that you are totally converted but you can experience and enjoy a new life rather than hurdles and struggles.

Please note that not everyone has to go through all four traditional phases or follow the same order; life is more complicated than that. This is a valuable tool that allows you to position yourself on your own acculturation process.

How to “manage” culture shock?
> What you are going through is a natural process. You are not alone; most will go through once they confront a new culture.

> Read as much as possible about the new country and its culture before arriving.

> If possible, plan an orientation visit to experience the country before moving in.

> Sounds cliché but is very true: If you want to stay longer in another country try to learn the language. It will make your life much easier and the locals will appreciate your effort.

> Try to mingle with the locals; go to places they go to, try their food, learn new customs and participate in local social events.

> Do not be afraid or ashamed to ask for help once you feel lost, stuck or homesick.

> Every day think about all those positive things the new culture has to offer and focus on the positive aspects.

> Try not to under / over estimate your own culture. It is not better or worse, it is just different.

> Probably the most important thing is not to make any assumptions based on your own cultural background. For example, yes does not really mean yes in all countries; it could only be a sign of courtesy.

> Finally, when communicating with others, do not be afraid to ask. During discussions, identify what the others really mean and of course, how they perceive what you say.

My name is Dorota Klop-Sowinska and I am an expat coach / counselor. During the past seven years I have experienced and enjoyed an expat life from all possible angles. I was a women with a busy international career living in the Netherlands with my Dutch husband. I was a mother experiencing the motherhood in the Netherlands when my daughter was born. I was an expat wife enjoying life in Mexico, where I have followed my husband’s career. I was an expat woman starting my own career in Brazil (and supporting the career of my husband). Now I am an entrepreneur who is running her business in the Netherlands. Thanks to all those roles I can easily connect and fully understand women who are living abroad for various reasons or going through big changes in their lives. I have been there, I have seen it, I have done it!

I am the owner of DoSo! Coaching & Counseling which focuses on international women living abroad. I coach them in order for the to have successful & fulfilled life abroad both professionally & privately.

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