Let’s Take a Moment to Talk Culture Shock

So in between all this holiday cheer (because I have more holiday posts coming!), I wanted to take some time to talk about homesickness and culture shock because, let’s face it, even the veteran expats are probably getting a little homesick this time of year.

I saw this video come up on ExpatInDenmark.com the other day.

It’s a good video, and I like the way it succinctly describes something called the “culture shock curve.” But ever since watching it I can’t really stop thinking about it. Because I don’t think that this really describes my experience so far as an expat. (All 4.25 months of it.)

The traditional culture shock curve looks like this:

I drew my own based on the video because I can't find a simple one that I like online.

I drew my own based on the video because I can’t find a simple one that I like online.

It’s important for non-expats – for family and friends who are left behind – to understand that there are these multiple periods of culture shock instead of just the one initial period. Because from afar the expat life can seem like one big exciting adventure. You can see how there would be an initial period of adjustment, but it’s harder to understand from afar how the more serious period of culture shock may come later after you’ve superficially adjusted to life in your new country.

However, the way it’s usually drawn makes it look like a fairly natural ebb and flow, like a steady progression through stages. But there are two things that I would note:

1. Not everyone gets to the final “acceptance” stage. Some people get stalled in one of the various culture shock troughs. I read this in a “so you’re moving overseas” book before we left the US, and I will admit that it kind of freaked me out. Because I would be just the kind of person to get stalled. But I think it’s important to note that adaptation isn’t easy.

2. My personal experience is not represented by this graph. Rather, it looks a little more like this:

You are here...somewhere

You are here…somewhere

This may be due to the fact that I’m only 4 (.25!) months into my expat experience, so I may not be seeing the big picture or larger pattern. But it definitely feels like these culture shock periods come much more frequently than just twice in your whole expat experience, and they’re not necessarily so prolonged. The whole experience feels much more up and down rather than smoothly curving through sequential stages. I feel like I go through one whole cycle of this maybe once a month.

Also, I don’t think that these two states are mutually exclusive. I can be in the throws of a serious homesick binge when we have a good day and learn something really cool about our host country. Or I can feel like things are going fine when something happens and I feel like I’ve fallen back a couple steps.

So while the culture shock curve is a very helpful graph in introducing future expats and their families back home to the fact that there are multiple moments of culture shock and that adaptation is hard and may not come easily or right away, I think it’s a little too simplified. And as an expat who’s read many many articles about this “normal” curve, it’s starting to get a little annoying.

Not every expat’s journey looks like that. Your journey and how you handle the experience of moving abroad is very personal and unique. Comparing yourself to some standard of normal – or to what other expats are doing or feeling – can sometimes be more harmful than helpful. Just have faith in yourself and your ability to grow and adapt. Know that you will get there someday in your own time in your own way. Or you will go home, and that will be OK, too, because this is your journey.

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37 thoughts on “Let’s Take a Moment to Talk Culture Shock

  1. Pingback: A wonderful Blog entry | Duchess of Nowhere

  2. You’re quite right, culture shock (and reverse culture shock, when you repatriate) are not linear or smooth. These curves drawn by experts have to be taken with a pinch of salt! :)

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    • So true! I am eventually going to post about reverse culture shock, but it’ll probably be another 8 months before we take our first trip home, so I’ve got a while. :)

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  3. It is like surfing! Gotta ride the waves….highs and the lows. Enjoy the great days and allow yourself to have terrible days, even years later.

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  4. Your chart is probably the reality for most expats and has nothing to do with being a new or a veteran expat. Frankly after 13 moves across three continents in 25 years, I have no more “honeymoon” period and don’t feel like a tourist at the beginning of a new expatriation, especially when I have to deal again with finding a new school, a new house, learn a new language etc. So I usually start by being frustrated and then I can enjoy my “honeymoon”, months later after I have established my routines, rebuilt my support network of friends and found a place to enjoy my favorite activities. After 16 months in Russia I have still not visited St Petersburg or any other touristic places outside Moscow but I am happy with my Zumba class :-)

    I think the “traditional” curve shown in the culture shock video is actually good to explain what to expect in term of psychological responses to change. Individual experiences vary greatly and it is not easing the pain to be told that it is “normal” but it helps to look for people who have been through this process, no matter how their culture shock curve looks like.

    I hope you will enjoy this expatriation

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    • Thanks so much for sharing your experience. It’s always helpful to hear how someone else handles the move and adjustment period. (13 moves in 25 years?! I don’t know if I could do that. My hat’s off to you. Do you learn the language in each country?)

      I definitely agree with all you said. I do think the traditional curve is useful. I know I found it helpful before becoming an expat.

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  5. Ups and downs good days and bad …the slightest thing upsets your day …at “home” you would just brush it off! So no curve to fit everyone just an approximation yo suit the different stages of acclimatisation

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  6. The film is interesting but I share your doubts on whether people actually experience that U-curve. In fact, research shows no support for it. A study by Colleen Ward and colleagues in New Zealand* found no evidence for a U-curve. They looked at international students and asked them about their adjustment directly after arrival, after 4, 6 and 12 months. They found that adjustment problems were greatest upon arrival and then gradually decreased. I think your curve reflects the actual experience better – and if you would draw a line through it, it would probably end up gradually increasing.

    PS It’s nice to read about your experiences in Denmark – I also recently moved to this country!

    * Ward, C., et al. (1998). “The U-curve on trial: a longitudinal study of psychological and sociocultural adjustment during cross-cultural transition.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 22(3): 277-291.

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    • Thanks for the citation to that article! I hadn’t thought to look to see if the curve held up under scientific study, but I find it very interesting that it doesn’t.

      I love meeting fellow expats in Denmark! How long have you been here and are you enjoying it so far?

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      • I came at the end of August. I live and work in Slagelse and so far I’m very much enjoying it! I’m looking forward to following your blog (but first I need to go out and buy an advent wreath!)

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      • Hah! I know what you mean. We have our wreath, but now we need to go get a juletræ. And make more paper hearts and stars, of course!

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  7. There has actually been numerous research suggesting to retire the U-Curve Cultural Adaption model altogether. Unfortunately, academic results seem to not transcend well into practice, esp. with a model that is SO widely used by all practitioners.
    Have a look here: http://www.culturosity.com/pdfs/Berardo%20Cultural%20Adjustment%20and%20Transition%20Training%20Presentation.pdf
    Basically, the model is too simplistic, adaptable, and there is no academic support for this model to be true.
    So, well in line what what you are experiencing! :)

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    • I really feel like I should have done my research before writing this post… But I’m glad you guys are bringing all of this research to my attention! I especially like this pdf, Susan, as it gathers so much of these issues in one place.

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      • Allison I’m glad you posted it. It caught my attention and the additional reader feedback is helpful as we mull over the possibility of moving our family there.

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      • I’m glad that my post could help you a little bit. I think that the actual culture shock in Denmark is pretty minimal if you’re moving from the Western world, but moving abroad at all necessarily entails certain elements of culture shock. Good luck with your decision! I’d be interested to hear if you do end up moving here.

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  8. I really liked your article – both style and content!
    I think everyone’s experience is unique too. I’d be very surprised to see that expat experiences follow regular model predictions like the curves in the video. So many different factors affect your own experience that to predict one exactly must require ESP. Things like the wide range of individual qualities of the people involved – personalities, life experiences before relocating, financial situation etc.

    For me, the video and your article serve a very valuable purpose though. They make it clear that it is normal not to feel normal, and others experiences at least give some basis to an individual in evaluating expat life before, during or after. Without this, expat life can be a lonely road sometimes.

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    • Thanks for reading and for your lovely reply :) One of my main reasons I love blogging is because it allows me to connect with other expats so that I know I’m not alone in this experience and to share my own experience with others. I don’t know what I would have done if we’d done this move pre internet!

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  9. Pingback: WWWhat it's really like being neWWW | Sunny IntervalSunny Interval

    • That’s awesome! I love that about blogging; it allows you to feel that you’re not alone in your experience. I really love how you describe culture shock in the beginning as elastic. That’s it totally. I’m excited to explore your blog and read some of your poetry :) Thanks for linking to me in your post! I’m glad you found something on my blog that you enjoyed and could relate to.

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  10. Thanks Alison -I’m a bit late to the party but wanted to say how much I love your diagrams and I have found this discussion fantastic! If it’s OK with you I may reference the diagrams in training I am doing. I’m glad that Marian referred you to Colleen Ward’s work – it’s great to get research that makes us think about what we do in training or coaching or what we write about. I think what you have done in realising that there are highs and lows possibly all on the one day and having the clarity and self-awareness to see what tipped you from one to another is the real secret to successful expat living.

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    • Hi Trisha. Thank you for your comments! I’m glad you found my blog helpful, and of course you can reference the diagrams in your training. I’d be honored! I try to be honest about the experience so that others going through the same thing know that they’re not alone.

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  11. Hah, I’m an Aussie 6 months into a year in Lima, having also spent a year in Costa Rica in the dim and distant past. At 6 months I’m hitting some of the really deep culture shock stuff that I’ve not experienced before, which is mostly due to a completely non-western way of thinking and organising that has serious implications on my work and life here. I do think the W curves over-simplify things a little and ignore the noise of constant smaller ups and downs we go through all the time, but at the macro scale it’s not a bad approximation, so long as we remember that everyone’s experience will be different and not everyone makes it to a happy place in every culture (I’m finding Peru far harder than I found Costa Rica, for a variety of reasons, despite having a better grasp on the language this time).

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting blog that is helpful for where I’m at right now.

    Cheers,
    Toni.

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    • Hi Toni. Thanks for reading my blog, and I’m glad you’re finding it interesting and helpful. I have a lot of sympathy for expats who are in a really different culture from their home country. Denmark is fairly similar to the US, and I’m still having some culture shock problems! So I can’t imagine the struggle involved in moving to a vastly different culture.

      I agree with you about the curve. It’s good for a macro, average look at dealing with culture shock. But it should go with the caveat that not everyone’s journey looks the same and that, as you said, there is always this micro “noise” of culture shock going on in the background. I think that’s a good way to put it.

      Good luck with your time in Peru! I hope that the culture shock lessens for you soon.

      Allison

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  12. Hi there,

    Just found your blog and I am loving it…This video e simply amazing!
    I fell exactly the same as both me and my wife are “suffering” and going through each stage (with the exception that we live in the UK and we are portuguese). Each second spent here is like wasting our time. I know I am over reacting a bit but honestely, we don´t socialise with british folks…all our friends are foreign as well. I wish I could live and work in Denmark…been there recentely and we both loved it and could recognise some values, ideals etc in the nordic culture.
    In the last month my wife received the news that her company will be bought by an american group which also has a danish company from Aarhus and I am always trying to wncourage her to try her luck with the danish people and investigate if they are recruiting.
    Continue the good work in your blog and good luck!

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    • Thanks for reading my blog! I’m glad you’re enjoying it so far. I totally feel your expatriation pain. They say it gets better. We shall see. Where did you visit when you were in Denmark? Was it for work or vacation? I’m a little jealous too because I would love to be in the UK! Maybe we should just trade places ;)

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      • We went on vacation to Copenhagen for 3 days in February. We were stunned with what we saw…the landscape relaxed me just by looking to it. It was one of those places where you say: “I could live here”
        The UK itself is ok and the green landscape is also very impressive and I live very close to Bath which is the second most visited city, just behind London. But we don’t identify ourselves with the British people (don’t think that they all are “posh” people) :)
        Our circle of friends are only foreign people, which means something…I guess around here the language would be easier for you.
        oh well, enough of complaining…lets swap then :D
        Looking forward for your next post :)

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      • I know what you mean about finding it difficult to integrate into your new country. It’s the same in a lot of places, I think. Lots of expats end up with mostly other expats for friends because it’s so much easier to identify with each other. Plus there are usually built in excuses and activities for meeting other expats, but that’s not always the case for meeting locals. As for Britain, I studied English literature in college and have always wanted to visit there, but if just haven’t been able to yet. Hopefully soon!

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  13. Hi Allison, thanks for this post, you are making a great point. I work as a clinical psychologist with Spanish-speaking expats and migrants and I interview tons of others for my own research and I can tell that you graph is really accurate. I am creating a blog in Spanish where I talk, explain and write about all the topics that people keep on saying “if only I had knew before” so I am writing about cultural shock and I would like to show your graphs if that is ok with you (you can see the blog at http://www.expatpsi.com/blogo)
    Saludos from Argentina,
    Paula

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    • Hi Paula. That sounds very interesting! Feel free to use my graph, just please cite my blog as the source. Also I hope you don’t mind that it was hand drawn and not very professional :) Good luck with your blogging! That kind of information can be so useful to have access to as an expat.

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      • Hi Allison, thank you so much, I was planning to cite you as the author, I will also add a link to the blog. If you would like that in a particular way pls let me know. Again, thanks a lot!!

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      • No problem! You can link to it in whatever way works best within the context of your article.

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