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5 Steps to Adapting to Life as an Expatriate

Everyone Goes Through the Five-Stage Cycle of Crosscultural Adjustment

Cafe in Rome expatriates
A café is a great place for expatriates to get a sense of the local people and culture.

Everyone who moves to another country goes through a cultural adjustment cycle. Some take longer to go through the cycle than others.

Expatriate Amy Hart, a North Carolina native who has lived and worked for 11 months in Munich, Germany, helps us to differentiate among the five different stages of the adjustment cycle.

1. Honeymoon Stage

At first stage everything in Hart’s her new surroundings was profoundly exciting and interesting. She had the feeling of a dream finally coming true and being in the middle of a great adventure. Just like a honeymoon, the bliss of beginning a new life can be rose-colored, happy, and hopeful for most expatriates.

2. Culture Shock

After six to eight weeks Hart moved into the culture shock stage. “Overall, I hated the feeling of not being independent. It’s as if you are a child again. Your personal freedom is suddenly taken away from you,” said Hart. It’s typical at this stage to physically feel that something is not right.

Hart often complained about headaches and stomach upsets. She felt tired and couldn’t concentrate on her work. Her sleeping patterns changed as well. She felt homesick and as if she was living with one foot in her American culture. This stage lasted for about another eight weeks.

3. Initial Adjustment Stage

After the culture shock period Hart went into what we call initial adjustment stage and became able to connect with local people in social and business situations. Though she was still missing her home, she gained self-reliance. Being needed in her company helped her feel better.

It was hard for her to realize that she then had to go through another stage of negative feelings.

Pennsylvania expatriate Kelly Payne lived and worked in Germany and Japan. She found it easier to enter this stage of initial adjustment when she learned how the ways of relaxing in her new host country differed from her own.

North Americans are active and try to crowd as many activities into an hour as possible. Wasting time is wasting money. In cultures where there is less emphasis on competition, people are able to let time “fill itself.” They place more emphasis on quality of actions than quantity of actions.

During the initial 40-minute subway rides to work in Germany, Payne felt the urge “to be doing something.”

“When I forgot to take my book or my walkman with me, I felt so useless just sitting in the subway. It took a while until I learned not to feel guilty when I just enjoyed watching people or letting my mind wander,” said Payne.

4. Mental Isolation

The initial adjustment stage is followed by another wave of integration ups and downs.

During this stage Hart really needed support and help from her friends and co-workers. She felt anger toward the host culture and doubt about her decision to live in Europe. “Maybe the people back home are forgetting about me,” said Hart.

She complained about the fact that everything is “verboten” (forbidden) in Germany and that the food was different. People were staring at her in a way she was not used to. “I sometimes felt as if I had an imaginary American flag on my forehead. People just knew even before I spoke. “I got the ‘you’re different’ type of look,” said Hart. She lost motivation to continue learning German, and you could tell a difference in her personality. The sparkles in her eyes were dimming but her mind was expanding as she transitioned.

5. Acceptance and Integration

Finally, Hart entered the last stage of the culture adaptation cycle: acceptance and integration. She stopped trying to change the host culture and stopped making constant comparisons to her own American way. She developed strategies for everyday life in Germany. She was willing to take German classes again, tried to speak German to everyone in the office, and seemed to be more content and less moody.

“My sense of time was mixed up in my first months here in Germany. At a restaurant with my German friends, I felt strange when they kept sitting at the table after finishing dinner. I felt the urge to pay for the meal and leave. I was ready to go to another bar or cafè. I learned not to be in such a rush and to have dinner for two hours or more instead of 45 minutes. I began to let go of the feeling that having a tight schedule was important and productive.”

The key to overcoming cultural difficulties is being willing to look behind the façade of appearances and learn to understand the basic human emotions we all share. For individuals from different cultural backgrounds, the possible ways of perceiving the same event can differ greatly.

“You can only see what you know.” Learning this is the key to understanding.

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DANIELA MONTABAUR works with Trust in Business (TiB), an organization that provides international companies and individuals with support when relocating to Germany.


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