If you’re human and going out to into the world for your first international assignment, you can pretty much count on being faced with all the confusion and bewilderment that comes with culture shock and the unraveling of the psychological process of learning to cope and thrive in your new temporary home. Anybody can muscle through the coping process, but it’s the benefits that come with learning to thrive that will determine the future of your career in international aid and development work.
While there’s no vaccine for dealing with the shock of having to learn a whole new understanding of normal in a place where few of the rules you’ve learned to live by apply, there are measures you can take to decrease the stress and frustration this often leads to.
Taking these steps will help you live the reality of being the kind of globally-minded and adaptable person you’ve always believed yourself to be… and the kind of person your cross-cultural counterparts actually wantto connect with instead of the stereotypical annoying Westerner they simply have to put up with.
1. Adjust Your Expectations
- High expectations lead to a low level of satisfaction. Buses will arrive late. Luggage will get lost. Teammates will misinterpret your intentions. Working cross-culturally is rarely a straightforward experience, so accepting that speeds bumps are part of the journey is a wise idea. Remember, sometimes low expectations result in a higher level of satisfaction and happiness.
- Knowledge is Half the Cure. Know the stages of culture shock and expect to experience them, even if you’ve interacted with the culture before.
- It’s not bad, it’s different. Practice this phrase, over and over and over. And along the way, try to learn the “whys” behind the differences…eventually many of them will start to make more sense.
2. Study Like You Mean It
- Read and listen to related blogs, books, and podcasts. What cultural norms do you notice? Are people more likely to be late, early, or just on time? What are some common gender expectations? Are gifts between business partners expected?
- Watch movies produced by the culture. Art often exaggerates life, but you might learn the local manners surrounding eye contact or a bit about the bus system or work culture.
3. Find Culture Mentors
- Find a target-culture mentor. Ask this person what a normal business meeting looks like, and how staff relate to leaders. Encourage them to share observations about similarities and differences between your two cultures.
- Connect with a co-worker who’s been there. Ask them to share any observations, but remember that depending on which stage of the culture shock continuum they are at they may give you and overly-rosy or unwarrantedly-negative perspective.
4. Do a Mindset Check-in
- Assume the best. Whether it’s a baffling comment after your presentation or a merchant who laughs every time you use the local language, it can be easy to assume negative intent. There’s a good chance you’ve actually just crossed some cultural wires. Experiment for a few days by assuming these individuals are on your side and like you.
- Believe you can do this. Research suggests that those who believe they can overcome obstacles—not based on inherent talent but on a willingness to work hard—are more likely to succeed in cross-cultural and other challenging situations.
- Stop comparing. Does comparing your ex-lover do anything to improve your relationship with your current spouse? No. Nor will negatively comparing your host culture with your home culture do anything to benefit your growth here.
5. Take Time for Exploration
- Find one new experience every day for a week. You may be surprised at what you discover. So maybe the balut(partially developed duck in its eggshell) really did nothing for you. But thatpancit(friend noodles) rocked your world. As you have more experiences you’ll find that this culture is like your own: there are things you’ll love and others you could do without.
- Google it! Why do Saudi Arabians often set business meetings for general times of day instead of exact times? Why didn’t your Chinese business partner offer his thoughts during that meeting? Finding the answers may not only surprise you but also help you to be more accepting of the local culture, and more effectively navigate through the nuances.
- Ride the bus. Take an afternoon off, get on a bus and ride. And then another. And another. As long as you’re in a relatively safe region and you have a hotel or address card in your pocket to give to a taxi driver, exploring your new city this way can re-ignite your curiosity and sense of adventure.
6. Develop Friendships With Those in the Target Culture
- Ask for help. Ask a local co-worker or neighbor for help buying vegetables at the wet market or exploring a historical site. Early on, this can be less intimidating than a one-on-one meal because you don’t face the same pressure for conversation.
- Give help. You don’t need to be a teacher to sit and chat about pre-planned topics in English, and many a strong friendship has been built on the foundation of language exchanges.
7. Learn the Language
- Dip your toes in .If you’re encounter will be brief, even learning a few words or phrases may cue you in on some unexpected cultural tidbits. It shows respect for the culture and is generally appreciated.
- Full immersion. If you plan to stay long term, find a way to make language learning a priority, either formally through classes or informally with a hired tutor.
8. Get Social Support
- Chill out with same-culture friends. By actively building a strong social network you lower your risk for burnout, anxiety, depression, and even illness. You don’t want to spend all of your free time with same-culture friends, but devoting some casual time each week to these relationships can be refreshing and fill your tank up for the coming cultural interactions.
- Enjoy a “culture night.” Invite co-workers and local friends over for potluck, where everyone brings a favorite dish from their growing up years. Use the night to talk about cultural differences and similarities.
- Talk to a professional. You can decrease your likelihood of burnout and depression by processing your experiences with a counselor who themselves has cross-cultural experience. If you are experiencing significant anxiety or depression, counseling can get you back on track. Many counselors today are willing to meet via Skype or Zoom for those working overseas.
9. Don’t Deny Your Home Culture
- Don’t overcompensate. If you just really don’t enjoy Beijing Opera or watching Japanese game shows, don’t force it. Honoring and adapting to the culture you’re working with doesn’t mean you completely lose touch with the culture you grew up in. In fact, trying too hard to become just like the people you’re working with can come across as inauthentic…and it can wear you out.
- Let your home reflect you. If you’re living long term in this culture, don’t feel that your home needs to be decorated exactly like your neighbor’s. Incorporate aspects of the local design culture you appreciate, but feel free to hang that Van Gogh print you’ve been carting around with you since college.
- Eat some mac and cheese. Experiment with eating the local food at home (you’ll probably save loads on your grocery budget!) but don’t deny yourself the occasional trip to the local import store for barbecue sauce or chocolate chips.
Proactively responding to culture shock has the potential to make you a better person. You’ll likely become more creative in the face of setbacks, more astute in negotiating contracts, and increasingly empathetic when working with others.
So what are you waiting for? Your adventure is out there.