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Culture shock

Expats are usually stationed abroad for a limited amount of time. The most add to their careers and move up the corporate ladder; usually to a new international posting, some they choose to leave as soon as their contract finishes, others fail dismally and the unsuccessful expat posting becomes a career moot point.

Sometimes they choose to stay longer... There is a substantial expat population that has chosen to retire in the various countries they have been posted to.

International business success comes as a result of how we adapt to new cultures. The better and quicker we adapt, the more success we will have.

As most expatriates will tell you, living away from one's own Country can be a little difficult. Many often experience culture shock.

The new culture may not be explicit or easy to adapt to.

Daily social paradigms and norms we are used to back home may no longer be applicable. Dealings with the local population may be stressful. On the other hand, locals will often show acts of kindness and forego their daily paradigms in their dealings with foreigners.

Unfortunately more often than not, normal paradigms that work back home, do not work in the new setting. Assumptions that we use to assess business or social situations and communicate intentions are not valid. Losing mastery of basic situations can lead to a feeling of losing control. The inability to interpret the surroundings and act accordingly often leads to frustration, anxiety, and in some cases to depression. This is a normal reaction and shouldn't cause one to worry. However, if culture shock is not dealt with it could lead to one not gleaning the most from an overseas transfer. Expats living in their new country may thus create comfort zones by avoiding the strains of local paradigms. 

In fact, most people experience culture shock in stages. 

How happy an ex-pat is feeling changes over time and is often described as "the culture shock curve".

To help you deal with culture shock, we've put together some useful guidelines.

Stages of culture shock

Stage 1: Still at home - "what have I done?"

This is a time of great emotional turbulence. On the one hand there is the anticipation and excitement of a new adventure and on the other hand sadness at saying goodbye to family and friends. This is all mixed with a good dollop of fear of what lies ahead. 
This is the moment when your social life has never been so good or people so complimentary. In the rush of emotion it is easy to wonder why you are leaving. Luckily Italy is universally considered a plumb location. Slightly envious friends and colleagues promise to visit (you may come to regret this later but at this point it is very reassuring). Chances are that any visits before emigrating will be full of wonderful Italian food, friendly welcomes and great weather.

Even before you leave, you can start taking positive steps to minimize any possible culture shock. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Educate yourself about your new Country;
  • Learn about English language facilities available in your destination city;
  • Learn about the local people; 
  • Learn about social customs and local practices;
  • Learn about Cross Cultural Adjustment and Culture Shock;
  • Start a language training programme;
  • Be sure to face the challenge as a FAMILY; 
  • Address the specific needs of CHILDREN;

Stage 2: In the hotel - "the honeymoon period" - Reaction to the new culture.

The big advantage of staying in a serviced apartment ( or in a hotel s that they speak English, do your laundry and provide food and drink on tap. It feels much like a holiday. Although you might be a bit stressed about the huge number of things to do (made worse by the tales of woe that seasoned ex-pats will delight in recounting), real life is put on hold for a short while. As you take a stroll and aperitivo in the evening and are welcomed and included by colleagues, it all seems wonderful…...

Stage 3: Coping with real life - "crisis time"

After the initial euphoria of being in the new country is over, the typical reaction most expats initially display to the new culture is to reject the environment and the local people. Inevitably the comparison between 'back home' and the 'new home' is made. More often than not, customs and traditions in the 'new home' are perceived as a little 'strange'. Dealing with this 'strangeness', and the difficulty of adaptation to new business and social settings may result in withdrawal into work, family or the expat community.  Culture shock as it is commonly understood hits either when you have been in your hotel a frustratingly long time due to difficulties in finding accommodation (how is it possible that my rented apartment doesn’t have a kitchen?) or you have finally given up on the idea of a 4 bedroom detached house with garden in the centre of Rome and settled for a more realistic alternative.  

Now the fun begins as you tackle the growing list of "things to do to get settled in". Everyone who moves to Italy has his or her favourite nightmare story of “documenti”. It is unlucky that probably the most frustrating, anger-inducing task ever devised by Italians is the very first one you have to do. It would be difficult to imagine a more tortuous process that is occasionally made worse by a bored power-crazed official who has never heard of the concept of service. It helps to know that a) you probably only need to do this once during your stay and b) it is a free full immersion lesson in cultural awareness (You may not be this philosophical at the time and came close to physical violence/tears on more than one occasion). This can be a time of self doubt, anger and wondering why you have come to Italy at all?

Other culture shock symptoms may include fatigue, tension, anxiety, excessive concern about hygiene at home, and the constant obsession with being cheated by the 'locals'.

Physical Symptoms:

  • Too much sleep or too little sleep; 
  • Eating too much or having no appetite at all; 
  • Frequent minor illnesses; 
  • Headaches.

 Psychological Symptoms:  

  • Loneliness or boredom; 
  • Homesickness; 
  • Idealizing home; 
  • Feeling helpless, overly dependent; 
  • Irritability or even hostility; 
  • Social withdrawal; 
  • Unreasonable concern for health and security; 
  • Rebellion against rules; 
  • Crying; 
  • Stereotyping host Country's people.

Stage 4: Starting to adjust - "settling in"

Soon things start to become easier. Ordering a cappuccino and brioche becomes second nature and you carry out everyday tasks with ease. You learn some survival skills and find that simply speaking some Italian gives you more independence and boosts self-confidence. 
The typical ex-pat oscillates between stages 3 and 4 for quite a long time but it gets easier steadily until Italian life becomes the norm. You get a more balanced view so the driver who swerves dangerously in front of you is no longer "typical Italian driver!" but "typical male/female driver!" 
Adaptation gives a clearer view of the good and bad that Italy and your own country offer.

Coping with culture shock: what can one do to minimize culture shock and speed up the process of integration? 
Already knowing and expecting some adjustment makes everything easier ! Than the two most important options are 

to change reality and change your perception of reality.

Change Reality: Get someone else to do most of the tasks (or at least accompany you). This is a good short-term solution but get good practical advice on how to sort out the logistics yourself.

Develop your "task achievement" technique. Here are some examples gleaned from other ex-pats:

When asking for help get all the details (however seemingly trivial) e.g. contact name, address, location e.g. Signora .... at the Questura Via ….., second floor at the end of the corridor, never queue until you have checked that you are in the right place. Jumping to the top of a queue doesn’t come naturally to the queue loving British and order respecting northern Europeans but remember that jumping a queue to check you are in the right place doesn’t count and there are some advantages to being a foreigner. This is one of them. Always ask the name of the person giving you information - it prevents you having to repeat the whole story at a later date and often results in improved service(!).

Change your perception of reality - Enjoy the best from both cultures. 
You cannot change Italian culture to be like yours. Try for a happy balance where you adapt to Italian norms while maintaining those values which are important to you e.g. continue to take your kids to the playground in winter but also enjoy Italy’s wonderful beaches in the summer (Italians have the excellent idea of going to the beach for most of July and August).

Increase your cultural awareness. 
By definition different cultures do things in different ways. By understanding these differences you can better understand what is going on around you and adapt yourself to make things easier. There are many examples of this: e.g. Italians are much more formal than Americans, Australians or British. So when an Italian uses very formal language with you he is being polite not unfriendly. If you say ciao to a new acquaintance they will be taken aback (as this is normally used only with family and friends). 
Likewise, lots of forward planning is considered laborious and a waste of time by many Italians but their very flexible and creative approach to work allows them to hit their target in a way that more organised, better planned cultures cannot.

Improving daily communication with the local population will help you to adapt. There usually are numerous language classes for foreigners. Alternately you can hire a private teacher.

Understanding the Country, the people and the culture will help you to assess your differences and similarities better. Seek out opportunities to educate yourself about the countries history, geography, and traditions.

Exploration of the new culture by sightseeing will help ease the rigors of the learning curve. This can be a great opportunity for meeting other expat's and locals.

Before Leaving: 

  • Remember to bring comfort items. I am speaking of items that are important for your health and well-being. By being prepared, you save yourself some stressful moments.
  • Start learning the language even before you leave your home Country. 

 Upon Arrival:

  • Plan for your free time. Books, magazines, games
and hobby materials willhave a larger place in your life. You
will have more free time with less television, traffic and
commuting. You can work on that hobby that you never
had time for before. You can read, write, explore…
  • Enrol in a Cross Cultural Training Programme. Make it a fun family activity. Label things in the house. You will get plenty of help from
everyone around you.
 Everything will make more sense and you quickly
earn the respect of the locals;
  • Learn your way around your local neighbourhood;
  • Document this amazing experience. Journaling is a
tool that I recommend to everyone. Consider keeping a
photo journal with a written journal. Keep your camera with
you at all times to capture the new sites of your new home.
You might consider starting a web page or a blog so your
family and friends can still feel connected to you. It helps
them to understand your new life when they can see it;
  • Make some social contact with locals;
  • Don’t isolate yourself - join an Expat Group;
  • Keep doing things that are important to you;
  • Never pass up opportunity. If you see it, buy it! This
is a great tip. When you see an item that you have been
searching for, buy it and buy some more. 

As You Settle In:

  • Remember what you have learnt about Culture Shock; 
  • Continue with your language training & apply what you learn; 
  • Don’t look back or continually compare; 
  • View differences as variety, not as problems; 
  • Stay connected to home. By communicating with
your loved ones on a regular basis, you can still be present in their lives. Use video cams and conference calling (connect several family members or friends on the same call). Get creative. With Skype and computer-to-computer
communication, this is affordable and often free.

  • Keep a sense of humor ! 
  • The first year is an amazing year and it will pass quickly.
Pretty soon, you are the one telling someone where they
can ….. Keep good notes and phone numbers for reference. Ask questions, explore, and keep a sense of adventure. When you start losing your sense of humor, take a break. This is why you have a stash of comfort items (magazines, favorite foods, DVD’s). You chose to come to a foreign country for the adventure. …..!



Some final thoughts to ponder:

People who experience greater culture shock at the beginning usually adapt better in the long run because they are more perceptive of cultural differences. 

Remember: you moved to Italy to experience a new country, culture, language, way of life. Where is the fun if everything is the same as at home?

The type of person most likely to be transferred abroad (successful, high energy, "in control"…) probably has the personality type that is hardest hit by culture shock. 
People who "go with the flow a little" and are patient and relaxed are the ones who integrate most easily.

Being a foreigner can be a huge advantage as you are often allowed (expected even) to behave in a different way. Often a smile and a "probably we (insert nationality) do this differently than in Italy but ….. " and sometimes you can get a way with anything…….

Levels of Adaptation:

High: Convert to the new culture: Reject one's own culture and convert to the new culture

Medium to High: Participate in the new culture: Adapt to the new culture while retaining one's own strong cultural heritage

Medium: Become stuck in the middle: Unable to either adapt to the new culture, or preserve one's own culture. 

Low: Avoid the new culture: Minimize contact with the new culture and fully maintain one's own culture.