Whether it is your first experience abroad or you are a recurring successful expatriate, the same question comes back irrevocably: ‘Will I be able to adapt?’
You may be sent abroad by your company, choose to move on your own or follow your spouse, this question pops up automatically. We all ask ourselves if we will be able to feel at ease in the country we chose to move to. And yes, we chose to move this country. We may have made some trade-offs or sacrifices but we had the opportunity to say no.
So let’s roll up our sleeves and let’s adapt ourselves!
This is where you might think if you are an expatriate in Sweden: “Come on, one more coach that will tell that we have to behave with consensus and be “lagom” or tell that we have to learn the Swedish language …”. Everyone has already heard it over and over. Did it work? Did everyone working and living in Sweden become Swedish stereotypes?
The key adaptation factor is not your knowledge of the country, nor is a perfect knowledge of the language or a perfect imitation of the expected behavior between Swedes.
This knowledge and these behaviors are only your tools to your adaptation. The key to adapt is the meaning you give to what you are living. The rest is part of your action plan to achieve it.
Here are 6 keys to ease your adaptation to a new environment:
1. Become aware that adaptation is part of your life!
Every new step requires adaptation.
As an exercise, just draw a line representing your life, think back to all the stages you passed so far (e.g., your first days in a new school/college/high school, your first apartment when you left your parents, the first weeks or months at university or into a new job, your first child…). We all spend our time adapting to a new environment.!
How did you adapt? What were your feelings? Your goal?
Do you realise that you never thought you were actually in an adaptation process – so why being afraid this time?
2. Make your live more meaningful!
You need to adapt to your environment. What for? In other words, what do you expect from this expatriation? What is important for you? How does this experience fit into your life path, be it personal, professional …? How could you make the situation win-win for everyone (Whether you are in couple or with your family)?
An expatriation with only one working member enjoying it (while others wait for the next move) is doomed to failure. Everyone has to figure out what benefit to taking out from the expatriation. It should be feelings, novelty, new experiences even if it turns out to be a very different life from what he or she expected initially.
3. Set your goals!
We all have dreams and aspirations that help us to move on.
Have you deeply thought at what you expect, what you want? How will you achieve it? To make it happen, you need to set short, medium and long term goals.
I often hear: « As we leave in 3 years from now, what is the point to think about long term goals ? » Keep in mind that your life in expatriation is just a parenthesis in your life itself. What will you do after this expatriation? Enjoy the moment but think long term as well!
One of the ideas is to focus on a final goal, and then identify the milestones on the path. This will allow you to measure what has been done along the journey.
Be careful though not to mix ‘goals’ with some kind of ‘perpetual search for something to do or to prove’! You do not need to make yourself busy. As said previously, it should be meaningful!
4. Do not confuse needs and means!
The better you know yourself, the more you know how to find the keys to adapt.
Learn Swedish, get involved in intercultural trainings, develop your networks … All these elements are useful, if not even necessary. The key question is ‘what needs do they respond to’?
Let’s take the example of language. We are told to learn the local language to adapt to the country. You need to ask yourself about the underlying need for this, for instance
- You want to be able to communicate: in this case, English may be enough for you, since in Sweden, 86% of the population has an excellent level in English. (2)
- You want to prove yourself that you can handle it and manage your daily activities in the local language or want to accompany your children in their own process to learn the language. A limited level of language proficiency might be sufficient to achieve your goal.
- You want to be able to feel like home. You want to feel treated on an equal foot with the locals: then, it makes totally sense to deeply learn the language. Taking language courses, allowing yourself to take time and breathe, developing contacts will be some of the means you have in your pocket to your ends and meet your need.
Identify your needs and then choose the right tool that will help you to feed them.
Your adaptation will make sense and you will know what to focus on. It will not be only “adapting because we have to adapt”.
5. Tame your environment!
First of all, you need to accept that you will not understand everything. Take each and every ‘surprise’ as an opportunity to learn about the environment that surrounds you or about yourself.
- Dare to ask questions ! This will help you to understand what is going on but also to show to your interlocutor that you are interested in his or her way of perceiving the country. This will allow both of you to think twice about how and why you both do things in a particular and singular way.
- Involve your surroundings and your environment in your learning process. Did you miss a point? Do you face difficulties? Say it aloud! Most of your interlocutors will often be delighted to support and help you and you will then find new opportunities together to do things differently.
- Be open-minded: the answer may be clumsy. Accept finally that your question may not be understood: You are not the only one to face a new culture, your interlocutor does too!
Try to identify what comes from the cultural norms of a country and what come from the personality and identity of the person you are talking to. All the Swedes, all the Frenchies… are not the same. If we look very closely, we can see that we are all very different and respond to our culture in a very specific way.
Dare, test, experiment and do not hesitate to say it verbally!
This does not mean that your performance or intelligence will be questioned.
6. Make the difference between adapting and adopting!
Individuals feel quickly when a person is not authentic, whether it is conscious or unconscious. Often in expatriation, to be accepted and to integrate into society, we may try at all costs to adopt the attitudes and behaviors of the inhabitants of the host country, even if it is the opposite of our true identity. This is called to ‘over-adapt’. The opposite effect of what we try to communicate or imply often happens: we feel ill-at-ease, evaluate our performance as poor. Furthermore, the person we talk to feels that ‘something does not work’ and may become very distant or even closed. This may imply frustration and anxiety. To make it short, no one feels good, and the relation is biased from the beginning.
Become aware of your emotions. What situations and contexts make you happy, sad, angry? Dig on it! You cannot control your emotions, they push you to act; Emotions are your engine.
None of them are good or bad. You cannot change or control them. What you can do is to modify the behaviors you link to a specific emotion regarding the context and your goal for the T moment. You may not adopt it for the rest of your life! It may just be for this very specific situation. If this behavior is at the opposite of your values, do not adopt it and explain the reason why quietly.
To adapt means to cross half the bridge between 2 worlds :
- To be able to recognize and understand our own emotions, feelings and the impact they may have on others. The objective is to develop a realistic self-assessment and your ability not to take yourself too seriously and ultimately gain self-confidence;
- To be able to control and change our state of mind, to suspend our judgment and to think before acting. This will allow you to face your own fears and to open yourself to change in a rather quiet mood;
- To be able to pursue goals with energy and tenacity by nurturing your desire to succeed, cultivating optimism and commitment;
- To be able to understand others’ temperament and interact with people while truly listening to their emotional reactions;
- And finally, to be able to find common ground to communicate and build relationships with others by recognizing your individuality… as well as their own.
In a nutshell, ‘adapt’ means take the best of cultures in order to be ourselves, to exceed our objectives and to help others to succeed.
- Lagom : Swedish word quite difficult to translate which means « not too much, not too little » or « how to find the right balance »
- Eurobarometer 2012
“6 keys to adapt everywhere” published on Le Petit Journal de Stockholm