Taming the Culture-Shock Effect

It can take six months to a year to adjust to life in a new country. Last in a series.

Published: Nov 15, 2019

When Bernard was transferred from England to the United States for a consulting job, he encountered the Monday-morning office ritual of discussing weekend sports. It being football season, he was completely puzzled with some of the terms his new colleagues threw around when discussing the game; he'd never heard of a "down" before in soccer.

Getting used to new terms and ways of living make for exciting, if sometimes also awkward-and potentially damaging-moments when working abroad. Give a business card in China with one hand instead of two and you're viewed as rude. Rush to be punctual for a meeting in India, only to see others mosey in 15 to 20 minutes late, and you'll realize that being "on time" has a different connotation. Give a thumbs-up to someone in Nigeria as a sign that everything's going well, and be prepared for an offended glare: That's the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger in the U.S.

It can take up to two years to stop feeling like a stranger in a strange land.

As more professionals work abroad-according to a report by Mercer, 47% of companies have increased the deployment of expat assignments in the past three years-there's a greater need for understanding how to deal with cultural customs, especially those that may seem strange to you. Almost everyone who lives abroad experiences some form of culture shock, and you'll find that you may miss some of your own customs more than you expected to. While everyone adjusts at different speeds, it commonly takes six to 12 months to feel comfortable in your new home, and it can take up to two years to stop feeling like a stranger in a strange land. Here's how to reduce culture shock and adjust to your new office abroad.

Before you go, dig into the details.

You'd be surprised how many professionals, in the midst of packing and getting logistics in order, don't do their research on customs in their new home. And this isn't limited to cultural norms; there also are different expectations of vacation time, parental leave, and the number of working hours in a week. In France, for example, if you work for a company with more than 50 employees, your employer is forbidden by law from emailing you after working hours. And depending on how centralized your company is, expect a bit of an odd holiday schedule; you'll most likely get Christmas off, but not the Fourth of July. And you may have to work through Thanksgiving, but then get a week off when the entire country shuts down for its national celebration.

Depending on how common it is for your company to have employees working abroad, your HR department may have some information on local customs. If not, do your best to read books and blogs about expats in your new country, so you have some idea of what to do-and not do-by the time you arrive.

Stay tuned in to your surroundings.

One of the best ways to overcome culture shock is to be curious about the environment around you and notice what others are saying-even if you've been abroad for a while. Korn Ferry senior client partner Kirsta Anderson had been in the U.K. for two years when she told a client over the phone that his work was "quite good," only to hear him go quiet. His reaction surprised her until she learned that saying as much in the U.K. really means not very good at all. If she hadn't paid attention to his cues, they would have had a damaging misunderstanding.

You can also pick up a lot through osmosis. Rather than closing the door to your office or putting in headphones, take your laptop to the common area and watch and listen to people's interactions. It's also a great idea to work remotely sometimes, from a coffee shop or bustling cafeteria, to get a similar, but more intense effect.

Ask the locals for advice.

When in doubt, sidle up to a colleague or friend who is a local and ask them how to handle certain situations. When Alicia, a journalist in China, was given a gift that was beyond the nominal fee that's permissible at her company, she asked a local colleague what to do, because that person understood Chinese gift-giving and also the policies set in place by the company. "Chances are, you'll come up against a few cultural differences that someone else has already dealt with, so you won't need to reinvent the wheel," Anderson says.

Keep a sense of humor and commiserate with other expats.

Above all, the best way to deal with culture shock is to learn to laugh at yourself. Words and expressions that you misunderstand will create some embarrassment, but will also offer more opportunities to share a laugh and bond with your colleagues. It's all part of your expat learning curve. As you make friends with fellow expats, you'll often hear similar stories, which give perspective that you're not the only one who's missing home or completely bumfuzzled by the way certain things are done. And you'll most likely get in a good laugh too.

Case in point: When Anderson first moved to London, no one told her that "pants" actually means "underwear" there. She had an embarrassing moment when a colleague invited her to the pub after work and she responded, "Sure, I just need to change out of my work pants into jeans."

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