The Four Stages of Adjusting to Life in the Third World

It’s been said that knowing is half the battle, and when facing an international assignment in a third world country this couldn’t be more true. An unfortunate number of individuals have left their position in international relations or other cross-cultural positions because they failed to recognize just how much of a change they’re in for when going through a drastic change of environments, something that affects every aspect of a person, from psychological implications to affects on physical health.

If you can’t figure out how to adjust, you won’t last long in international aid and development work. If, however, you lean in and treat everything as a learning experience you’ll be setting yourself up for the most amazing career on the planet.

If you’re mindful and proactive about the way you work through the adjustment period, you’re going to be rewarded with some things that you’ll carry with you your entire career :

  • Improved communication skills
  • Greater ability to think outside of the box
  • Increased flexibility in your mindset and emotions in the face of challenges
  • Heightened empathy and perspective when navigating tricky interactions
  • Increased self confidence

Simply understanding the typical phases of cultural acclamation will prepare you to navigate the process with wisdom and grit.

  1. Honeymoon

    You’ve just started connecting with the other culture and, like a first love, things feel fresh, new and exciting.

    In some ways your collision with this new culture mirrors the excitement of a new relationship:

    • You’re much more aware of the positive aspects of the culture than the negative ones.
    • It’s easier to excuse or reframe negative interactions as mistakes.
    • You feel a sense of excitement or euphoria as you explore and try to learn all you can about the culture.
    • You think the complaints others have about the culture are petty or narrow-minded.
    • You have unrealistic expectations for what your long-term relationship with this culture might look like.

    For some people, this stage passes fairly quickly, but others might stay in it for months. It may be wise not to make any major life decisions during this stage, whether personally or for your career.

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  1. Negation/Frustration

    Lately you’ve been feeling crabby, irritable, and maybe even a little depressed. You miss bagels and the Internet is horrible. No one says what they actually mean. And, by the way, has the neighborhood fruit vendor been so friendly to you only because he overcharges you?

    This stage creeps in over time, the accumulation of a hundred little irritations. You start to wonder how you could have been so enamored with a culture that makes so little sense to you based on the cultural norms you’re used to.

    Things that lead to negation can include:

    • Miscommunication:The frustration of understanding and being understood can eat at your reserves.
    • Confusing encounters: Things didn’t go quite right and you don’t know why.
    • Distasteful habits:Whether it’s spitting on the sidewalks, a general sense of patriarchy, or arriving late for meetings… You’ll find things starting to grate on your nerves, even if you know these traits are common in every culture.
    • Unfamiliar Food:Maybe the textures and spices just don’t entice you, or perhaps mealtimes lead to repeated trips to the restroom. Either way, food issues can add to the mounting discomfort of culture shock.
    • Difficulty Accomplishing Daily Tasks: The local grocery didn’t carry coffee! … You’ve ridden the bus all over the city trying to find a white button down shirt that fits, because the only one you brought ripped when you were trying to squeeze off the subway.

    It’s in this stage that full-on culture shock can overwhelm you if you don’t respond proactively.

    The good news? It’s temporary.

  1. Adjustment

    You’ve figured out how to navigate the public transit. You know that you should wait for the team leader to enter the room before you sit down. And, thank god, your stomach finally seems to be adjusting to the cuisine.

    If you’ve chosen to make this a learning experience, you’ll find yourself becoming more patient and better able to understand and respond to this new culture. Some things you’ll likely notice during this stage include:

    • A more positive outlook overall
    • You have more emotional reserves to respond to everyday frustrations
    • Enjoyment of the other culture, possibly even appreciating things you once considered strange (mid-day naps, anyone?)
    • Greater confidence in your ability to relate cross-culturally
    • Increased ability to see the world from multiple perspectives

    During this period you may find yourself picking up certain habits from your host culture that you enjoy or that fit your new lifestyle.

    You’ll still have rough days and confusing interactions, but in this stage you’re more able to accept them as par for the course and they won’t distress you to the same extent as before.

    Reaching this stage often brings a huge amount of relief…it’s a bit like a balloon filled to absolute capacity, and just when you thought it was going to pop the pressure starts to release, bit by bit, until life feels good again.

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  1. Adaptation/Acceptance

    Depending on how long you interact with a given culture, you may never fully reach this point. Adaptation comes when you’ve spent so much time immersing yourself in this new culture that for the most part things feel pretty comfortable to you. You might not understand the culture, but you’re able to accept the differences and take things in stride.

    If you’ve hung around long enough to enter the adaptation stage, here are some adjustments you’ll see happening:

    • Less energy needs to be spent on dealing with cultural confusions and learning practical life skills, leaving more room in your brain to focus on work and family.
    • Ability to accept that many differences between cultures are not bad or good, just different.
    • Unexpected experiences like ending up on the wrong bus or finding out your host’s evening plans for the team include a steam bath don’t disturb you so much.
    • You sometimes forget that doing things certain ways aren’t “normal” in your home culture; you’ve become so accustomed to them that they hardly register anymore.

    Depending on your role, you may have sufficient time to reach this stage. Even if you don’t, however, aiming for the third stage in the cross cultural acclamation process is still a worthy pursuit.

    Here’s some good news: Now that you know what you’re facing, you’re halfway to becoming an intercultural solutions pro and really making an impact.