How to Prepare for Culture Shock

Fact: Anybody who moves abroad will experience some level of culture shock.
Fact: It’s much easier to cope with culture shock if you are prepared for it.
Fact: Culture shock can cost businesses money.

It is very important to prepare properly for any long-term assignment abroad.

The international company where you work invites you to go and work in one of its foreign branches for a year or two. You have a partner and a couple of kids, so they are coming along too. You are probably going to find it all quite easy, surrounded by colleagues and creating a social network. Your partner may do less well. They will probably be at home looking after the kids, they don’t speak the local language and may become lonely and stressed. Parents with small children can feel isolated even in their own country, but after six months in a foreign country may decide that they’ve had enough and they want to go home.

Even children experience culture shock, but we call it ‘homesickness’ instead. We adults may think that we are too old for such things and that missing home is just a sign of weakness, something to be ignored or fought. This can be a big mistake!

OK – so this is how culture shock works:

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Period: 0-2 months:

You and your family arrive in your new location with a positive attitude, ready to embrace the new place, its people and its culture with interest and an open heart. You have travelled light, planning on picking up the stuff you need locally, it’ll be cheaper. You start to settle in to your new apartment, focussing on the things you like about it. The kitchen and bathrooms are a bit strange, but you’ll get used to them. You check out the local tourist attractions, take lots of photos, share them on Facebook and buy some pretty things to decorate your new home. You try out the local restaurants and find out what foods you actually like. You spend your free time like holidaymakers.

The kids are all open-eyed and loving it. They seem to be getting a ton more treats than usual, and when they get tired and it’s time for bed you seem to be reading them more stories than before, as they snuggle down to fall asleep with their favourite soft toys.

At work, everybody seems very friendly and helpful, and they make a big effort to help you settle in. Your colleagues are interested in your home culture and ask questions. Maybe you get asked to dinner at their homes.

Stage 2: Settling In: 2-4 months:

The newness begins to wear off. You begin to miss the familiar things of your own locality, the easy communication and immediate understanding with neighbours, shopkeepers and bureaucrats. Your new flat begins to feel inadequate. You wish you had brought a bit more of the old home with you. The local TV channels show very few programmes from your own country, and even then they are dubbed over. You wish you’d brought more favourite DVDs with you. The plumbing is not what you are used to, the kitchen is strange and the oven burns your cakes. A trip to the laundry room is a trial because apparently you don’t know the protocol and the neighbours can’t explain why they are annoyed.

The kids have now seen all the interesting stuff, and now the older one has to go to school every weekday, just like before. The treats seem to be getting less, and Mum and Dad don’t seem quite as positive as before. They seem to be complaining more.

At work, your colleagues have got used to you and stop asking questions. They are a bit too busy now to help you all the time, but you are still struggling with language misunderstandings, cultural cues and that nagging feeling that you are not doing exactly what is expected of you. This is happening several times a day, some things never get resolved and work is getting more stressful.

Stage 3: Irritation: 4-6 months:

This is the most difficult part. When you arrived you were feeling positive, full of enthusiasm and flying well above the normal day-to-day level of feelings which you experienced at home. It was almost like being on holiday – new places, new food, new people. Then you reached a sort of peak as these things became more and more familiar, and slowly the newness wore off, and your feelings started heading down a slippery slope of growing discontent.

Now, in Stage 3, your level of feelings drops below the normal level you experienced at home. This is where culture shock kicks in. If you are not ready for it, you may not understand it at all. What on earth is wrong? It must be this stupid country with its stupid weather and its stupid bureaucrats! Or perhaps it is this dumb company branch I’m working at? And the family are no help! My partner is complaining all the time that they are lonely and bored. What am I supposed to do?

The kids are missing just about everything from home. They miss their friends, they miss their grandparents, they even miss the school they complained so much about! Their parents are much more focussed on themselves now, not so eager to go places or do family things.

For the one stuck at home with the kids, it’s all the fault of their stupid partner who is always at work at that stupid company, and who is always too tired to do anything when he or she comes home.

Stage 4: 6 months and beyond: Make or Break Time:

Plus or minus a month or two (depending on the individuals) this is the time when decisions will get made. This is the time when the project is abandoned and you decide to head home, or when you take a deep breath and hang in there.

Returning home may not even be an easy option. Perhaps your house or flat has been rented out for the planned period. Most certainly the job back home is now being done by someone else. All the people you said goodbye to will be surprised to see you return, and you’ll have to relate your sorry tale a hundred times. And actually, going back home may not solve the problem anyway.

Given just a little more time, that slippery slope of feelings that you were experiencing will actually bottom out and start improving again. The curve will go back up past normal again, but not quite so high, as feelings adjust and you take a new interest in your surroundings.

Wherever you go that you believe is actually going to be interesting, you will feel great at first. Then you’ll get used to it, and then get disappointed that it’s not so great any more. But you can’t feel ‘normal’ again, because you are not at home.

The solution:

All this can be avoided by you and your family being given some inexpensive training before you leave. Just show this article to your boss and the company will probably pay for it too. You need to be told about the customs of your new country, and preferably by someone who has also lived there as a foreigner. Natives of the destination country will never be able to see it as an outsider does.

You need to find out about many social things, like how to respond when invited to someone’s home, should you bring flowers, what kind of eating etiquette should you follow? You should get to know some important public holidays and what makes them special. Are there any small-talk topics that are off limits, due to historical rivalries or infamous nationals? Who is famous and popular and why?

Every time a mistake is made in a foreign country it creates a small barrier to further integration. Every mistake creates an uncomfortable memory that is hard to shake off. Every mistake will fuel the fire of an early return home. Preparation is the key.

Another important thing to do is to try and continue with your favourite hobbies and join local clubs that practice them. The local area may also provide opportunities for new pastimes, not found or thought of at home.

Keeping up with the folks back home is another vital link, and these days could not be easier. Regular contact via Facebook or Skype can shrink the distance dramatically, and stop your family feeling remote and alone. Watching streamed TV from home via computer is another great way to forget that you are not actually there.

It also well worth learning the basics of the local language. The more the family just tries to speak a few words, the more the local people will welcome them. It is not so important to become proficient in the language, the importance lies in trying. The adult who is going to be at home with the kids will probably need the language skills more, as the one at work will probably be getting by with English.

I spent 24 years living in Finland. I had no preparation, but I had the advantage of being married to a Finn, and this created a bridge between the two cultures which was easier to cross. Looking back though, I can see how the stages described above ‘happened’ to me, and they do happen, quite uninvited. I was unprepared and just reacted like a child. Later on, I studied culture shock and was able to make use of my own experiences when I coached incoming foreign workers and their families.

Living in a foreign country for a while can be very challenging, especially if preparation is not available, and support is scarce on arrival. Even moving between two countries in the EU (where you might imagine things work in similar ways) is not so easy. When you are a tourist life is usually quite easy, but moving somewhere to work involves much more. It includes dealing with landlords and agents, government agencies and immigration, utility providers and schools – and most of these players are not so good at customer service.

So, be a good boy or girl scout – and be prepared!

If you happen to be moving to Finland for an extended or permanent stay, I can offer expert training and lots of great advice. This could even be an extended service where we could remain in touch by email, so that when problems occur I can help, or put you in contact with someone who can.

This training can be done remotely via Skype or Webex and costs just £100 or €120 per adult for a 3-hour online meeting (kids can attend free). This includes a pdf version of the related presentation “Moving to Finland” and ongoing email support.

I did better than survive in Finland, and I did it for 25 years – you can too.

Please contact me at: <malcolm.pemberton@gmail.com>

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. porvoovelo
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 08:33:39

    Hello Malcolm,
    I found your blog just by typing the word “Porvoo” in the search directory and stumbled upon your article about J.L.Runeberg. It’s a really nice and refreshing blog 😉 I like this post about culture shock as I can relate to it to some extent. I’ve been living in Finland for quite a time now and learnt both Swedish and Finnish; I even managed to the point of passing language exams in Finnish from the national board of education (Yleinen kielitutkinto). When it comes to culture shock I’d say that the most delicate period for me came while I was experiencing the “kaamos” for the second time; by then I realised how darkness, wind, rain and dull autumn weather could damp my body and soul. My “therapy” was based on extra sports (I took on swimming activities again and practised cross-country ski whenever possible). I also got strong support from my partner’s family, my kids, and I was lucky to have a job and helpful colleagues all the way. Now after all these years it would feel hard to move back to Belgium. Greetings from Porvoo, my new hometown!

  2. Malcolm Pemberton
    Apr 13, 2014 @ 11:43:56

    Hi! Thanks for your reply and I’m sorry I took so long to respond. Life has been insanely busy as we have just moved house again and had to deal with all those bureaucratic things – and we still don’t have broadband!
    I’m glad you’ve fully settled in Finland and I must agree that the ‘kaamos’ struck me several times. Now I’m back in the UK I have ‘repatriation shock’ as the UK has changed a lot and so have I – at least I was expecting it. One person came up with an interesting viewpoint: It’s easier to be sick in your own language! Not very positive perhaps, but a visit to the doctor is a lot easier in your own country, and so is dealing with all those other visits to offices etc.
    I hope you continue enjoying your life in Finland 🙂

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