Culture shock – You’ll get it

A culture shock is not a weak emotion that affects only a few people. It is a reaction to the foreign environment. Very few people are spared it. The shock sometimes occurs immediately, after a few weeks or months. Who knows about it and expects it, gets over the mood low faster. Basically, you should expect an acclimatization period of 6 months to a year. Poorly prepared, failure threatens. Up to 25% of the stays abroad are cancelled because the culture shock was not considered.

The term culture shock describes the shock-like emotional state into which people can fall when they encounter a foreign culture. The term was introduced by US anthropologist Cora DuBois in 1951. Kalervo Oberg extended this term to make it more general and introduced a theory based on four phases (“honeymoon phase”, crisis, recovery and adaptation). This was later described with the Lysgaard U-model (1955) and then with the W-model.” (

How does a culture shock work?
The word culture shock does not mean that the problem hits you in one fell swoop. It Begins slowly. You may be dissatisfied with one or the other, not everything works the way you want it to. In spite of good preparation and orientation trip, many small things will cross your path, which you did not expect, which are so completely different than in the homeland. These are usually things that you cannot foresee and for which you cannot really prepare. How do other countries deal with pandemics like SARS, Dengue or Ebola? And did you know that there is leprosy in Indonesia and Brazil? Even the plague is not completely eradicated.

Hopefully, you’ll experience less dramatic events. Cockroaches in the kitchen or ants in the nursery are sometimes a minor problem. But you have to react and everything we don’t know, where we can’t fall back on our own experiences, confuses us. For example, small earthquakes from the view of the northern hemisphere are not as dramatic as standing in a skyscraper for the first time in Taiwan.

Your view of everything will determine how bad the culture shock will be. Those who manage to gain open and curious experiences and to keep a positive view of the unfamiliar will get through the crisis phase faster and easier.

The culture shock can be divided into different phases:
As the word already says, you will find everything exciting and interesting in this phase. Disadvantages or negative things are not or hardly noticeable.

What you were “blind” to in the beginning, you now see all more clearly. In addition, often nothing is valid as you are used to it. That makes you insecure.

Slowly you begin to harmonize your views and actions with those of the local people. You know your way around better, become more confident.

You are now integrated and even adopt some behavioural traits.

Re-entry shock
You should be prepared for this when you return to your home country after a long period abroad. Not infrequently it’s worse because you do not expect it in your own culture.

You can also watch this video.

Business and culture shock
Especially in business this should not be underestimated. Companies value professional competence. Intercultural competence is much less taken into account when deciding on a secondment and is handled just as rudimentarily. Apart from an orientation trip and an intercultural workshop, you usually do not receive any further information. But you need much more.

  • Competence in leadership, also of local employees (diplomacy)
  • Competence in employee loyalty (talent for improvisation)
  • Willingness to share your own knowledge (willingness to compromise)
  • Want to acquire language skills (sensitivity)
  • Great affinity to country and people (tolerance)

The question of professional competence is important, but you’re emotionally competent?

The main reasons why employees go abroad:

  1. Gain experience
  2. Challenge
  3. Career boost
  4. Higher income

Only the first two are really suitable as main reasons. Many problems are “homemade”. It is not very beneficial for expats to “behave” like superior people. A little more humility and respect would be appropriate, especially since many can only have at home a fraction of the comforts that they were previously given abroad.

In this context, I recommend: Strategic Leadership Across Cultures – GLOBE Study of CEO Leadership Behavior and Effectiveness in 24 Countries.

What can you do about the culture shock?

Prepare yourself well. Read a lot about the country and watch videos on the Internet. You can also join forums or Facebook groups, read along and ask questions. The more you know, the fewer surprises you’ll get.

After your arrival, create an everyday life that includes familiar activities. For example, sports or dinner with the family. Find other expats to exchange with.

Be a discoverer. Curious and free of reproach explore the surroundings. Critically have a look on your own beliefs. Where do you get them? Are they still Right?

If you feel bad, look for something that brings you fun. This includes healthy food and enough sleep.

Without goals you become disoriented. Set some for yourself. If you feel very bad, then a small goal every day. Otherwise weekly or monthly. This can be a weekend trip or a theatre visit. But also a game evening or barbecue with friends. Go to museums and mingle with the locals.

Of course each expat must decide for himself which actions and compromises he is ready for. But nobody should do one thing: To condemn the locals for their way of life and to give them the responsibility for whether one feels comfortable in their country. Anyone who cannot identify with the country and its culture should draw the consequences. I dislike People who permanently annoy the population with their penetrating dissatisfaction.

My Experiences from China to think about differences:
“Mei you!” – “We haven’t it!”
Undoubtedly, we humans something always disturbs us. If not to ourselves, then to others. In our global society there is plenty of opportunity for this and I confess to being far away not to express my opinion.

At first, I was amused by the answer on the question of something: “Mei you” – We haven’t it. However, this saying is also used when your counterpart doesn’t feel like doing something or simply doesn’t like you. In the Chinese culture it’s not intended and above all not desired to say one’s opinion about others in public. So people here have looked for their own way to avoid unavoidable things without having to say directly what they are thinking. A kind of indirect speech. If you now live in China for a certain time, you can tell when something is really not available or whether the trader reacts with this sentence for other reasons.

It’s unwritten law that only people who follow the rules can deal with the Chinese. If you are angry about something, you will have to learn not to get loudly, but to express your opinion with a friendly smile and tricks. This isn’t reprehensible, not in China. It is common practice. This of course includes some knowledge about the culture. To know that in general Chinese would not do anything that would harm the health of your children is a plus of high value. You can enumerate with approx. 50% of your problems some facts, which allegedly or also really harm your children. I haven’t meet a Chinese person who hasn’t tried to make my wish possible. It doesn’t matter whether your counterpart believes your remarks or even understands what you are talking about. The only important thing here is that you must sound convinced and he has the feeling that you are acting solely in the interest of your children.

Now this example is more suitable for private use. Especially in the business sector foreign companies incur a lot of costs and inconveniences due to wrong communication. So you want something, but the other one doesn’t. This is expressed in statements such as: “I try my best”, which here means as much as: “I am not interested”. Once you have seen through the system, you can react accordingly. A common practice among insiders is to pay nice compliments to the Chinese colleague in advance, i.e. before problems arise, and to praise him for his performance. It doesn’t matter whether you consider his work a good performance or not. Also smaller attentions turn out to be helpful in retrospect. Now he owes you something and will be careful not to ignore your request. Whether the outcome will be the way you want it, remains uncertain until the very end. This requires flexibility in your own thinking and the willingness to compromise. But be careful! Chinese always act. Even when it comes to replacing a light bulb. If you turn in the bulb yourself at the end and he only holds the ladder, he was better at acting.

If you invite him to dinner and give him a choice between two places, he will ask you which one you prefer. He may then choose the other one. As a European you don’t care and you now submit. The Chinese finds that boring. A point deduction for you. He would like to continue playing and let you enumerate the tremendous advantages of the restaurant of your choice. If you get involved with it, he will give the preference at the end of your restaurant. You are now satisfied, you have just spent yourself completely. Not him! You have forgotten something essential. In no case you may miss to tell him also the advantages of the other restaurant. Otherwise he would think that you think he has no idea which two places it is about. Whether this is so, remains irrelevant. You end with the sentence: “I trust you and am sure that both restaurants are excellent. I look forward to a visit with you to the restaurant of your choice. At the next meeting we can try the other one.” So you are telling him to be interested in a long-term relationship in which it’s worth his while to invest. In principle, this works all day long and in every life situation. You find that exhausting? You get used to it and the successes shows you that it runs in this way and only in this way, satisfactory for both sides. Exceptions of course confirm the rule, but mostly it’s important for your counterpart that a balance is reached.

Do you have other experiences with the culture shock or still questions or remarks? Please write to me 😊.

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