Let’s suppose for a minute that you are offered a job in another country and you decide to accept it. If you are like most people you are going to start making preparations for your big adventure right away. You are going to think about arranging your finances so that you can transfer money home if you need to, or perhaps the other way, have access to your funds here in the U.S.A. in case of an emergency.
You are going to want to do some research on your new home country regarding proper attire, food, lodging, geography, political system, health care, and the people.
Experts say you should plan on registering with the U.S. embassy upon arrival. In fact before going you can and should register with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program or STEP. The State Department uses STEP to communicate to those registered in it important information in case of an emergency.
Your health is very important so prior to making the move you should visit your doctor not only to get your vaccinations in line but also for getting a good physical examination.
Another important thing to consider is you should try to learn as much of the language as possible. This will be very helpful in allowing you to read signs, getting a taxi, and carrying out some basic everyday communication with the people you come in contact with.
All of this is good, and I highly recommend you take the time to prepare yourself. However there is one preparation that to be honest I myself have been guilty of overlooking, which is the understanding and preparation for culture shock.
Culture shock is a phenomenon that occurs to people who move to another country and confront different customs, ways of life, social organizations, different eating habits, different social norms, and more.
Plain and simple, it is a psychological shock that occurs when humans try to adjust to new surroundings and cultures that are different from where they originate. It is the impact you may feel when you enter a culture very different from the one to which you are accustomed. While there are no firm figures, it is estimated that 85% of expats will suffer culture shock during the onset of their living abroad.
Most experts describe culture shock as an impaired ability to function. These experts site three reasons for culture shock. (Drake — 2014)
- The absence of familiar or comforting characteristics of one’s own culture.
- The presence of seemingly irrational, inscrutable, offensive, or even hostile aspects of the target culture.
- Lack of ability, linguistic or otherwise, to gain cultural understanding rapidly enough to adapt to these changes.
There are four phases to culture shock which expats will experience. These four phases are:
First Stage: Honeymoon: This is the period in which the traveler sees the new culture in a romantic light. The new country seems wonderful. The food is great. The local habits are fascinating and the people are interesting and often times they come across as welcoming and friendly.
Unfortunately this stage will eventually come to an end. .
Second Stage: Negotiation or Culture Shock
Sometime after arriving at the new destination — usually around three months — differences between the traveler’s own culture and the new culture begin to surface. These differences often times create anxiety. This is the time that excitement gives way to feelings of frustration and anger due to unfavorable events that may occur. These events may be perceived as not only strange but also offensive to ones values. Language barriers begin to play a role as well as public hygiene, traffic safety, food quality, exposure to different bacteria and loneliness begin to create a sense of disconnection.
During this stage expats exhibit many of the following symptoms:
Excessive concern over cleanliness
Feelings of helplessness and withdrawal
Irritability and anger
Desire for home and old friends
Suicidal or fatalistic thoughts
Compulsive eating and/or drinking
Stereotyping host nationals
Hostility towards host nationals
Third Stage: Adjustment
In this stage, which could take as much as one year, the expat becomes accustomed to the new culture and develops routines and is able to navigate through daily life. The traveler knows what to expect in most situations and the host country begins to feel like home. In essence things become more normal as the new culture begins to make sense. Negative reactions and responses to the culture are at this point greatly reduced.
However in this stage some people find it impossible to accept the new culture and are not able to integrate. These people become isolated and withdraw from the host country’s environment and see the only way out of this quagmire to return to their home country.
Fourth Stage: Adaption
This is the mastery stage in which individuals are able to participate fully and comfortably in the host culture. This stage is not about total conversion it is more about immersion. This stage can be categorized as bicultural where expats keep many if not most traits from their earlier culture which includes food preferences, language, accents, etc.
Understanding cultural dimensions might also help you in understanding what to expect once you are “in-country”.
Geert Hofstede cultural dimensions
Power distance: It is the extent to which the lower ranking individuals of a society “accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”. In China Power Distance is high while in the U.S. and most other Western countries Power Distance is low. In China the powerful are very powerful and the lower classes have little or no rights. Understanding the implications of power distance is important since this could literally prevent you from experiencing friction at work or in everyday interactions with local citizens. It is not an exaggeration to say that understanding this dynamic could save your life in some countries.
In countries with a high Power Distance Index parents teach children obedience, older people are respected and feared, workers expect to be told what to do, scandals are covered up, income distribution is very uneven and autocratic governments are the norm.
Countries with high power distance: Malaysia, Guatemala, Panama, Phillipines, Mexico, Venezuela, China, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lybia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates.
Countries with low power distance: Austria, Israel, Denmark, New Zealand, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, U.K., Germany, Costa Rica, Netherlands, U.S.A.
Individualism vs. collectivism: This dimension is to what degree people in a society work, and act in groups or on a more individual basis. For example Asian cultures are collectivist while Western societies, especially the U.S. are individualistic.
Collectivist societies aim for harmony, while individualistic cultures encourage speaking one’s mind. In collectivist countries privacy is not as important as the group. Also opinions and votes are often predetermined by “in-groups”. Individualistic societies favor task over relationships, while this would be the opposite in collectivist cultures.
Individualistic countries: U.S.A., Australia, U.K., Netherlands, New Zealand, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, France, Sweden.
Collectivist countries: Guatemala, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Peru, China, Taiwan.
Uncertainty avoidance: It points to what extend members of a culture feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Americans in particular score very low in this dimension while Asians, especially Chinese score very high. In other words Americans can operate under uncertain environments, while Chinese need a more structure environment.
Strong uncertainty avoidance points to intolerance of deviant persons and ideas. Differences are considered dangerous. There is a need for clarity and structure. The societies with strong uncertainty avoidance experience higher stress, emotionality, anxiety and neurosis. In politics, citizens are seen as incompetent toward authorities.
Societies with weak uncertainty avoidance are tolerant of deviant persons and ideas. These cultures suffer lower stress, anxiety and neurosis. Teachers may say “I don’t know”. Changing jobs is very acceptable. In politics citizens are seen as competent toward authorities.
Countries high in uncertainty avoidance: Greece, Portugal, Guatemala, Uruguay, Belgium, El Salvador, Japan, Peru, Costa Rica, Chile.
Countries low in uncertainty avoidance: Singapore, Jamaica, Denmark, Sweden, Hong Kong, U.K., Malaysia, India, Philippines, U.S.A.
Masculinity vs. femininity: Masculine societies have a preference in society for achievement, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Feminine societies have a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. In more masculine societies, women are less emphatic than the men recognizing a gap between male and female values.
In feminine societies both men and women are caring and modest. People express sympathy to the weak. Both boys and girls are allowed to cry and fighting is not allowed. Women get involved in politics. These cultures exhibit less moralistic attitudes toward sex.
In masculine societies work prevails over family. There is broad admiration for the strong. Girls cry but boys don’t. Boys fight back, while girls do not. Sex carries moralistic attitudes.
Masculine countries are: Japan, Hungary, Austria, Venezuela, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico, China, Germany, U.K.
Feminine countries are: Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Costa Rica, Finland, Chile.
Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation: Long-term orientation is being focused on the future. It is the willingness to delay short-term material or social success in order to prepare for the future. Short-term is focusing on present and past with less emphasis on the future. Chinese are long-term oriented while Americans are short-term.
In short-term orientation most important events in life occurred in the past or take place now. There are universal guidelines about what is good and evil. Family life is guided by imperatives. Social spending and consumption are high. Service to others is an important goal.
Long-term orientation points to important events in life being in the future. Society adapts to circumstances. Family life is guided by shared tasks. Thrift and perseverance are important goals. Large savings are common.
Long-term countries are: China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India.
Short-term countries are: U.S.A., New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, U.K. Germany, Australia.
Indulgence vs. restraint: This dimension is about whether or not simple joys are fulfilled. The opposite is a society that controls gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms. Indulgent societies believe themselves to be in control of their own life and emotions; restrained societies believe other factors dictate their life and emotions.
Indulge societies have a higher percentage of happy people. These people have a perception of personal life control. Freedom of speech is important. Positive emotions are important. These societies exhibit leniency in sexual norms.
Restrained cultures have a greater perception of helplessness. Freedom is speech is oftentimes curtailed. Stricter sexual norms are exhibited. In educated societies lower birthrate is present.
Indulgent societies are: U.S.A., Mexico, Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands, Brazil.
Restraint societies are: Germany, Italy, India, China, Russia, Egypt.
Edward T. Hall — High Context / Low Context cultures
The following is how Brian G. Wilson of College of Marin, describes high and low context cultures:
High-context cultures (including much of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America) are relational, collectivist, intuitive, and contemplative. This means that people in these cultures emphasize interpersonal relationships. Developing trust is an important first step to any business transaction. According to Hall, these cultures are collectivist, preferring group harmony and consensus to individual achievement. And people in these cultures are less governed by reason than by intuition or feelings. Words are not so important as context, which might include the speaker’s tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, posture — and even the person’s family history and status. A Japanese manager explained his culture’s communication style to an American: “We are a homogeneous people and don’t have to speak as much as you do here. When we say one word, we understand ten, but here you have to say ten to understand one.” High-context communication tends to be more indirect and more formal. Flowery language, humility, and elaborate apologies are typical.
Low-context cultures (including North America and much of Western Europe) are logical, linear, individualistic, and action-oriented. People from low-context cultures value logic, facts, and directness. Solving a problem means lining up the facts and evaluating one after another. Decisions are based on fact rather than intuition. Discussions end with actions. And communicators are expected to be straightforward, concise, and efficient in telling what action is expected. To be absolutely clear, they strive to use precise words and intend them to be taken literally. Explicit contracts conclude negotiations. This is very different from communicators in high-context cultures who depend less on language precision and legal documents. High-context business people may even distrust contracts and be offended by the lack of trust they suggest.
Understanding cultural dimensions and the effects of culture shock will go a long way to making a move to another country an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Other articles by J. C. Scull