Surviving the Culture Shock: 10 Practical Tips

The situation below may not be totally unfamiliar. One may easily remember or visualize it.

I lost my way in a strange city, there are people next to me who might help, but I don’t speak the language, can’t hail a taxi or ask for directions. It’s cold and there’s just a light jacket on me which doesn’t give much of a protection. Fingers and ears are getting cold. I am looking for some place warm. Here’s what seems like a restaurant, but I’m not sure, can’t read the sign. I go in and it’s some sort of a café – with greasy sticky tables, fishy-looking patrons in strange clothes, and pieces of stale bread on the counter.

This may look like a scene from a horror movie, and the vampires are just about to show up. However, this is what actually happened to one of my Clients in a small Russian town. What the person experienced was an intensive culture shock. In a new environment, no foreigner can escape a culture shock of this or that degree of intensity.

Let us first see what ‘culture shock’ actually is

When speaking on the subject of culture shock, professionals often describe it as “stress-generating impact of a new culture.” The term was coined in 1960 by American researcher K. Oberg. In his work, “Culture Shock: Adjustments to New Cultural Environments”, he pointed out that entering a new culture is accompanied by a whole series of unpleasant feelings. The consequences of the culture shock vary from irritation, abrupt changes in mood, and tearfulness to physical symptoms such as headache and high blood pressure.

Analysts define 5 stages of culture shock:

1) HONEY MOON. The first few days in a new country may lead to euphoria: new friendships, tours of the city, beautiful architecture, unusual and delicious food.

2) REJECTION. The feeling of novelty is replaced by the burden of having to comply with different rules arising from the new cultural environment. One has to stomach local food, traffic is awful, weather cold, and no one to talk to. One feels irritation and anger, starts complaining about unbearable conditions, inhospitable people, and general queasiness. To top it off, local medicine and doctors are different, too.

The person either passes this stage and goes on to the next one – or ends up going back home in a state of severe stress.

3) REGRESSION. On this stage, memories of the home country one left behind start haunting the person. How could I leave this paradise on earth? Wasn’t it just a momentary impulse? One feels an urge to talk to one’s countrymen, read books and listen to music and songs in one’s native language, and eat familiar food.

4) RELIEF. Sooner or later, one gets used to practically anything. The food is not that strange anymore, the language gets more comprehensible, the new friends are interesting people, and Friday nights do not anymore consist of solitary TV-watching. The country is not that bad after all, I can live with it. Everything seems to get on track.

5) REVERSE SHOCK. Coming back home after long absence may involve all stages of culture shock, this time arising from the long-delayed contact with one’s own culture.

 

Please note that a foreigner may not necessarily go through all stages above or may experience them in a different order.

WHAT TO DO TO AVOID THE NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES OF CULTURE SHOCK and nullify problems that go together with it?

All recommendations below are based on Russian experience and material, but they also hold true for any other country.

1) STUDY THE COUNTRY WHERE YOU ARE GOING TO LIVE

This is a fairly obvious recommendation, but very few follow it. Although a bit of homework can really make life easier. Even if one is assigned a personal Relocation Manager, the person cannot be around 24/7 and there will be circumstances where one has to call up some of one’s own background knowledge.

Example. You are an expatriate manager, you are your own driver and you are stopped for speeding. You don’t speak the language. What to do?

Example: You don’t feel well, it seems you have a high temperature. There is no medicine at home, you neither know how to order them by internet, nor which medicine to order, because drugs back home are different.

2) TRY TO LEARN THE LANGUAGE, AT LEAST THE BASICS

In Russia, you will need to be able to speak some Russian. Yes, you can find English-speaking locals in big cities, but this may be a problem in more remote regions. Russian is easier than it may first seem. 2 or 3 months of learning is enough to speak the language comfortably and confidently.

3) ALWAYS HAVE YOUR ID AND YOUR ADDRESS IN RUSSIAN WITH YOU

If you lose your way and can’t ask for directions, show the address to the taxi driver.

4) ALWAYS HAVE SOME CASH WITH YOU

Although cards are accepted by many businesses, you may find yourself in a place where they would only take cash, such as taxi, metro, some grocery stores.

5) BEFORE MOVING TO A DIFFERENT COUNTRY, TRY TO FIND AN INTRODUCTORY COURSE IN ADAPTATION

To my opinion, this kind of training is not just useful. It is necessary. You can take the training remotely via internet or directly, right upon the arrival. After the course, you will know that it saved you a lot of time and energy. My recommendation is to take the course from local professionals, who weren’t just born in the country, but also have the necessary up-to-date knowledge.

6) HAVE AN ‘EMERGENCY’ PHONE NUMBER OF AN ENGLISH-SPEAKING RUSSIAN COLLEAGUE

This might be quite handy in a difficult situation when you need local help.

7) JOIN A LOCAL EXPAT CLUB

I strongly recommend INTERNATIONS, they arrange regular meetings of Moscow-based expats. You can also ask them online for help or advice.

8) GO OUT

Russia has fitness centers, gyms, theatres, cinemas showing English-language films, bars and other leisure spots. There are lots of opportunities to hold on to a lifestyle you are used to.

9) VISIT YOUR FRIENDS AND RELATIVES AT LEAST ONCE IN THREE MONTHS

According to analysts, the first three months in a new country are the most crucial period. Try to communicate with your friends and relatives, discuss a short leave of 2 or 3 days with your boss.

10) IN A STRANGE COUNTRY, TREAT EVERYTHING NEW WITH CURIOSITY AND INTEREST

Try to avoid the this-is-not-the-way-in-my-country comparisons. This is the way back home, no doubt about that, but this time you are in a different country, and such comparisons will only take away from your emotional resources and add stress. At my trainings, I urge the trainees to start a discover-Russia diary and take notes of everything unusual or irritating or even frightening. Over time, you will learn to treat such things with calm and ease and to accept them as they are, as part of local culture.

If you have a question you would like to ask right now, please feel free to do so, using the form below. I’ll be happy to help.