Manage Culture Shock in 3 Easy Steps

Margarita Gokun Silver, founder of coaching firm Global Coach Center, lays out three important steps to managing culture shock and getting positive about your experience abroad.

Culture shock and its stages?
The First Step: Perspective power
The Second Step: Feeling good matters
The Third Step: Negativity be gone

These three steps were born when I was asked to make a presentation on ‘How to deal with Culture Shock’ before an expatriate group in St Petersburg, Russia. “What can I say about dealing with Culture Shock that has not been already said over and over,” I thought. “How can I present it in a different manner – so that not only these ideas stay with people but that also they are original enough not to repeat everything else out there?”

I spent the next two weeks browsing the web, doing my research and pouring over my coaching books. As far as I could see, there was not much done with coaching and culture shock. And so, one very wintry morning, as I was watching large snowflakes cover the street outside my window, an idea occurred to me. Actually three ideas – the ideas that became the ‘steps’ in the ‘Three Steps to Managing Culture Shock’ program that I am about to share with you.

But first things first, let’s start with a little bit of background on culture shock.

What is culture shock?
At one time or another most of us have probably experienced the phenomenon that’s widely known as ‘culture shock’. People describe culture shock in different ways but most often it’s defined as a rollercoaster of emotions we go through when we move and have to adjust to a culture or an environment that’s different from our own. Research suggests that there are five stages to culture shock:

Stage I: Also known as the ‘honeymoon stage’. During this stage everything in the new place seems fascinating, interesting and exciting.

Stage II: During this stage we begin to encounter daily struggles of living in the new environment and realise the great differences between the life we’ve known and the life we live now. That’s the stage where most negative feelings surface because that’s when we begin to set up our household, start grocery shopping for the first time, have a plumbing problem, etc. Daily struggles, difficulty communicating and, in general, differences between our home life and our new life is what often produces deep dissatisfaction, hostility, anger, sadness, and feelings of incompetence.

Stage III: During this stage we begin to feel better because things are looking up. We are learning the ways to live our new life, we begin gaining some understanding of this new place, we somewhat know how to ask for what we need, and problems no longer appear grandiose.

Stage IV: During this stage the new place starts feeling a little like home, we succeed in making local friends, we no longer fret a lot about bad things, and we enjoy the good things.

Stage V: Also known as the ‘re-entry stage’, the stage when we have to return back to our home country. Many things we encounter on our return might be new to us since we’ve been absent for a number of years. Our friends have moved on and we still miss the ‘old’ friends and connections we’ve made in the country we left. This stage is typical for ‘perpetual’ expats in particular.

And now that we got the background out of the way, it’s time for the Three Steps to Managing Culture Shock.

The first step: Perspective power
Let’s look at the stages described above again. Definitions may call them stages yet they are nothing but perspectives — points of view – that we hold about something, in this case foreign to our culture. And, if that’s the case, can we change these perspectives at will rather than wait around for the worst times to end?

Let’s give it a try. First let’s take these five stages and give them names – names that signify the ‘feeling’ of each stage. This way we can see that they are merely examples of how we look at our relationship with another culture. We can say that our relationship with the new place is:

  • Fascinating (Stage I).
  • Frustrating/painful (Stage II).
  • Doable (Stage III).
  • Enjoyable (Stage IV).
  • A longing (Stage V).

These definitions are by no means the most perfect ones, but they illustrate at least five different points of view we can take on our relationship with another culture. We begin to see that ‘stages’ – or perspectives – are really the expressions of a ‘being’ condition, a state we are in. And, as we already know, while we cannot often change things around us, we can change the way we feel about those things. Changing our own emotional response to something is within our control.

Perspectives we hold colour the lens through which we look at the world. And, as such, they either empower or disempower us. If you find yourself locked inside a disempowering perspective, why not recognise that and move yourself out of it into another perspective – the one that will give you more power? Disempowering perspectives don’t serve us at all – in fact, they make victims out of us.

If we open our vision and discover that there are other states of ‘being’ – other perspectives or ways to look at our relationship with another culture – we will have a power of choice. We can now choose which perspective suits us best at the moment – which will make us happier and more fulfilled. Because remember – living in another culture will remain essentially the same no matter how we look at it, but our looking at the situation will have an enormous impact on us, our emotions, and our opportunities.

So the first step to managing culture shock – and your relationship with another culture – is to notice what state of being you are in. What perspective do you hold now? What other perspectives are out there that also ring true for you? Step out of your present perspective and step into another one – the one that is more inspiring and holds more creative power.

The second step: Feeling good matters
The second step (and the third step) comes from the research on marriages conducted by Dr. John Gottman (I highly recommend his book The Seven Principles of Making a Marriage Work). What, you may ask, does research on marriages have to do with culture shock? Quite a bit apparently.

As I read Dr. Gottman’s book in my Relationship Coaching study, I realised that some of what he proposes could be successfully integrated into culture shock management strategies. How? By looking at your relationship with another culture just as you would at any other relationship with another human being.

Think about it. Whether you are in a relationship with your spouse, your child, your friends, or your colleagues – you always have the good times and the bad times. And, of course, you try your best to avoid the bad times. It’s the same in your relationship with another culture. Increase positivity in the relationship by increasing the number of positive interactions with the new culture and decreasing the number of negative ones.

To start with, aim for the ratio of about 5:1 – that is try to find five positive interactions for every negative one during any given period of time (weekly works best). For instance, what makes your day in your new place of residence? Is it going to a museum, chatting with a friend, having a coffee, taking photos, going to a theatre, or shopping for souvenirs to send home? Make sure you schedule five of those activities each week. You’ll be surprised how quickly the feelings of culture shock subside when you follow this exercise.

The third step: Negativity be gone
This third step also comes from the research conducted by Dr. John Gottman. When Gottman watched couples argue, he discovered that those relationships that consistently exhibited the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse in their fights were the least likely to last. How does that apply to culture shock?

If you spend the next few fights not only fighting but also closely observing yourself and your partner-in-crime, you’ll discover something. You’ll discover that fights escalate out of control and offer the least possibility of ending peacefully if any of these elements are present: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

These are the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse and all four create a high degree of negativity in any given relationship. And that often proves to be lethal to the relationship in question.

Now let’s look at how this applies to culture shock. Imagine yourself unhappy in a country you are in or imagine yourself having a bad day. As with any relationship, your first inclination might be to resort to these four horsemen. You might:
Engage in criticism: “These people are just so rude!”
Become defensive: “It’s not my fault they don’t understand me.”
Act in contempt: think of all the eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, or hostile humour.
Stonewall: “Well, if that’s how they are going to be, I won’t deal with them at all.”

This kind of response doesn’t do anything to improve your day, but it actually does a great deal in damaging your relationship to the culture. Bitterness and disrespect grow like weeds, and soon you find yourself resenting the very name of the country you live in and of the people that populate it. This, of course, creates more unhappiness that, in turn, brings more of the same. Bad days pile one on top of another and soon you find yourself desperately waiting for that flight that’ll take you out of there. Is that the way to spend two to three years of your life?

So, that’s why Step 3 is based on taming the horsemen and, thereby, decreasing negativity in conflict. So instead of judging, blaming, criticising, and stonewalling, next time try to use humour, or a sense of affection, or a sense of acceptance towards whatever is bothering you. Blaming, criticising, and judging will only escalate your conflict with another culture – the development you don’t want. If on the other hand you use humour, you’ll avoid spiralling out of control in your frustrations and anger.

These three steps work very well together and they also work well on their own. Try them next time you experience culture shock.

The original article can be viewed here.