A look at the different ways an expat can relate to a new country, the curve of culture shock and a guide for the expat in forming a good relationship with a host country.
When you read “relations” you might think about your loved ones, friends, colleagues, neighbours … as you have extended your social network since you have arrived as an expatriate in Thailand. So let’s extend that idea. How about the relationship you are having with your host country? Living in a new country is an amazing and surprising experience. Leaving your comfort zone, routine, landmarks behind, in order to experience a new life, often far from the loved ones; facing cultural shocks, having some difficulties with the barrier language, trying to adapt to the new environment. To cope with all these changes will require time, perseverance, personal awareness and strong self tolerance. Tolerating yourself in this new environment and culture is definitely a challenging experience. First time expatriates starting a new mission are not alone; those on second or third moves will also experience drastic changes compared to their last experience. An overseas assignment is a change that requires the expat family to restructure, develop and adapt in response to the requirements of their new host country.
Why is “culture” so important ?
Others concepts of culture are that:
1. Culture is learned. This means that it is not innate; people are socialised from childhood to learn the rules and norms of their culture. It also means that when one goes to another culture, it is possible to learn the rules of a new culture.
2. Culture is shared. This means that the focus is on those things that are shared by members of particular group rather than on individual differences.
3. Culture is compelling. This means that specific behaviour is determined by culture without individuals being aware of the influence of their culture, as such; it means that it is important to understand culture in order to understand behaviour.
4. Culture is interrelated. This means that although various facets of culture can be examined in isolation, they should be understood in context of the whole; as such, it means that a culture needs to be studied as a complete entity.
5. Culture provides orientation to people. This means that a particular cultural group tends to react in the same way to a given stimulus; as such, it means that understanding a culture can help in determining how group members might react in various situations.
The culture in which we are raised deeply affects our behaviour and thinking. Going from another culture to yet another will lead to a process of acculturation, in other words, the modification of cultural traits induced by contacts between people having different ways of life or in short, cultural change.”
Four basic orientations to cultural relations are possible in the acculturation process:
1. Integration: Attraction to the host’s culture and preservation of own norms.
2. Assimilation: Attraction to host’s culture but non preservation of own norms.
3. The separation/segregation: Preservation of own cultural norms but non attraction to host’s culture.
4. Marginalisation: Non preservation of own norms and non attraction to the host’s culture.
In the process of expatriation, you would understand that integration is the most optimal form of interaction. Indeed the expatriate integrates himself into the other culture and at the same time he remains loyal to his own culture; while marginalisation is the most dysfunctional mode. If you preserve your own culture and are not attracted to the local’s culture, you will probably experience difficulties in adjusting to the new environment in the host country. Same scenario will happen if you retain your own culture and you do not want to accept a foreign culture, even though you are temporarily part of that culture.
Knowing your own culture is vital for you, as an expatriate to smoothly accept the process of acculturation. Besides, in order for this process to be a success, it is important for you to understand the different cultural dimensions of your host country. Nevertheless, even though you will successfully analyse and reflect on your “new” home’s cultural aspects, adapting in this “new” environment will take time and energy. The pace of transition varies from person to person.
The famous W curve model as a model of adjustment.
Phase 1: The honeymoon phase.
Everything is exciting, new, and predominantly positive. This phase is best described by feelings of excitement, optimism and wonder often experienced when you enter into a new environment or culture. While differences are observed, expatriates are more likely to focus on the positive aspects of the new environment. This phase is also known as euphoria stage which usually starts during the first week in the host country.
Phase 2: The crisis phase.
Unsure of customs, overwhelmed, anxious, confused, irritable, hostile. This is what often termed as “culture shock.” Culture shock has been defined in different ways by many social scientists. In general, it is a term used to describe the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, confusion, etc.) felt when people have to operate within an entirely different cultural or social environment. It grows out of the difficulties in assimilating to the new culture, causing difficulty in knowing what is appropriate and what is not. Often, this is combined with strong disgust (morally or aesthetically) about certain aspects of the new or different culture.
Phase 3: The recovery and understanding phase.
Flexible, open to new experiences, better understanding of host environment, developing social network. It is a stage where people start understanding the culture, environment and tries to adopt host country culture, norms, values start communicating with local people. Recovering from culture shock is handled differently by everyone. We each have our unique circumstances, background, strengths and weaknesses that need to be taken into consideration.
Phase 4: The adjustment phase.
Able to maintain home cultural practices, beliefs & accept or incorporate new cultural practices, beliefs. This is the stage where people become master in the culture and stable in new environment. With time and patience, we can experience positive effects of cultural adjustment, like increasing self-confidence, improved self-motivation and cultural sensitivity. As you gradually begin to feel more comfortable in and adjusting to the new environment, you will feel more like expanding your social networks and exploring new ideas. You will feel increasingly flexible and objective about your experience, learning to accept and perhaps practice parts of the new culture, while holding onto your own cultural traditions.
Accepting the adjustment process through this model is tempting, as it makes the process predictable and the symptoms recognisable. However, each expatriate may experience culture shock differently, depending on their preparation, their assignment type/duration, as well as their vulnerability to culture shocks.
Also, as you understand this process is not universal, how could you prepare yourself individually to cope this emotional and psychological shock? How could you adjust to your new culture more efficiently? It is clear that expatriation may bring a block or emotional responses such as: loss of self-esteem and confidence; insecurity and self-doubt; concerns about the future and a meaning crisis; reappraisal of life and a reinvention; hope for something more; changing sense of “self”.
To release those feelings that affect your clarity of vision and ultimately your achievement, you have to explore things that are not necessarily at the forefront of your mind. Often, you do not see that you have a block but just feel ambivalent about the goal. In other words, you need to observe and become aware of your own way of interacting.
Having quality time will help you to grow wisely within your new surrounding. You will be able to tolerate, accept and understand your thoughts as well as your actions without blaming yourself. How can you find the block naturally and prepare yourself to avoid or cope more efficiently the “crisis phase” and its cultural shocks?
You need to identify where you are in the cycle, imagine what you want the future to be, and then take accountability for reaching your goal.
Nathalie Conraud Mollah is a Certified Professional Life Coach. Nathalie has created Your Expat Gate to assist new and experienced expatriates who are struggling with a life routine. She has five specialist coaching services: Life, Intercultural, Career, Marketing and Small Business. Follow her on Facebook at www.facebook/yourexpatgate