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
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
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
- Learn about Cross Cultural Adjustment and
- Start a language training programme;
- Be sure to face
the challenge as a
- Address the specific needs of CHILDREN;
Stage 2: In the hotel - "the honeymoon period" - Reaction to the new
The big advantage of staying in a serviced apartment (www.roman-rentals.com) 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
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'.
- Too much sleep or too little sleep;
- Eating too much
or having no appetite at
- Frequent minor illnesses;
- Loneliness or boredom;
- Idealizing home;
- Feeling helpless, overly dependent;
- Irritability or even hostility;
- Social withdrawal;
- Unreasonable concern for health and
- Rebellion against rules;
- 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
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
Change your perception of reality - Enjoy the best from both cultures.
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
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
learning curve. This can be a great opportunity for meeting other expat's and
- 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
- Start learning
the language even before you leave your home Country.
- Plan for your free time. Books, magazines,
and hobby materials willhave a larger place in your life. You
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…
in a Cross
Cultural Training Programme. Make it a fun family activity. Label things
in the house. You will get plenty of help from
Everything will make more sense and you quickly
earn the respect of
- Learn your way
around your local neighbourhood;
- Document this
amazing experience. Journaling is a
tool that I recommend to everyone. Consider
photo journal with a written journal. Keep your camera with
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
- 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
for, buy it and buy some more.
As You Settle In:
- Remember what you have learnt about
- 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
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
this is affordable and often free.
- Keep a sense of humor !
- The first year
is an amazing year and it will pass quickly.
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. …..!