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Same same but different? Dealing with cultural shocks while living in expatriation

« How is it lo live in Sweden? », « Isn’t it too different from how we live here? », « What about food? Don’t you miss good one? ». These are some of the questions you may ask yourself before settling in in a new country or that you may hear from others who stayed in your home country while you are living abroad. Picture just few seconds how life would be easy if living abroad dealt with those little differences only! But real life is very far from it: living abroad put every single thing upside down, in your daily life and maybe in your mind too.

Bowling - Cultural shocks - CrossRoads Intelligence

Your routine flew into pieces; the confort zones you relied on seem to be put on a dizzy line. Why that? Because, even if you prepared and anticipated the cultural shock you were about to live, you may have not identified and anticipated some more insidious shocks, those which directly impact your identity.
You will find below some of them and how to identify them to be able to get over them.


1. The well-known cultural shock

Let’s start by the easy one! To blow one’s nose or to sniffle, to eat noisily if we consider differences between Japan and France; to let kids play outside when it is raining cats and dogs or freezing in Sweden compared to what is done in France; defining what it means to be late… all of these examples are specific habits in a group. Each group defines what is polite, respectful, normal or not.

These habits and codes are taught from our childhood and we get so used to them that they become totally unconscious. You may become aware of them if you get outside your group, which happens when you move abroad. You face thus a cultural shock.

How to become aware of them? It’s quite simple actually. Just make a break when you say or hear: « This is not the way… », « How do they manage to… », « Don’t they know that… » or « How rude / lazy… they are! »

Breathe and try to separate facts from judgements. You have the right to be upset, shocked. Take a break, what could be the benefits to behave such a way? Discuss it with local people. They will eventually do the same exercice as you.


The hard part of the work begins now! All the others shocks we will go through below are more insidious. Even if we think that we are prepared to face them, they may be tougher that we thought to apprehend in real life. Sometimes, a coach or a psychologist may be a great help.


2. Identities’ shocks

Nothing to do here with a possible shock between your home country and your host one. But it has everything to do with a shock between the person you were used to be in your home country, the person you want to be and become (or not) in your host country.

In your home country, you had a routine that was functioning smoothly. You knew (more or less) who you were and where you wanted to go. Expatriation may tear everything apart. You may be 20, 30, 40…, you may feel like going to your middle life crisis. You face now the choices you make and have to decide if you still want to follow this path. This shock is certainly the one that you have to take care of the most as it may lead to depression as well as to a true feeling of freedom. Take all your doubts and questions for as many chances to reinvent yourself. Speak out loud.


3. The « 3-people marriage » shock

Have you never thought that while in expatriation it is not just you and your spouse? Isn’t there a third part in your couple: the company that sent you abroad?
In this « strange couple », expectations may be in total contradictions and still remaining unsaid:
The expatriate (contractual definition) is stuck between his or her own expectations, his or her spouse’s may they be personal, social or professional and his or her company’s ones that is to say Performance;
The spouse understands the expectation’s stakes for the expatriate and the company but still wants to benefit from the adventure as well. Furthermore he or she has to deal with the expectations of the entire family;
The company wants its expatriated employee to be totally committed and knows that the spouse has a huge role to play to make the expatriation a success.

Discuss your objectives and expectations, say out loud your limits and what you are ready to give to the other stakeholders.

4. The Couple of Family shock

Expatriation may even be more complicated when you have to live it with a family. Spouse, kids… everyone has his or her very own way of dealing with it. Complications come from the fact that people in the family do not live the adaptation curve on the same agenda and timing. You may be happy with your professional life but you miss having a social one whereas your spouse has fun socially but is depressed because would like to have a job…

Furthemore, frontiers between work and personal life may not be that clear anymore. Every circle (job, spouse, kids) may enter another one from time to time and you have to find new roles to evolve in those new universes.

A Key? Still the same: talk about your expectations. Everyone in the family needs to feel that it is a win win situation, including kids. Don’t let the sacrifice feeling grow too much.


5. The Space Time shock

Expatriation has 2 main risks:
Make you live in the present and forget that it is temporary
On the contrary, make you live « on a temporary basis » and forget a kind of Carpe Diem spirit: « What is the point of doing all those efforts if I have to move again in few months? »

Expatriation is just a step in your entire life. It is not a life or a career. What is your long term goal? How will expatriation help you achieve it. You may have chosen to go abroad or not, you have to find what you can get out from it. There is always something under your control to make you feel better.

6. The cultural shock with those who stayed at « home »

Let’s end this post with this well known shock. Depending on your mood and whom you are talking to, you may either laugh or cry while talking about all those remarks you may hear from your beloved ones who stayed in your home country. What is this shock hard to manage? Because we never know how to deal with those remarks usually said with no judgement in them. Should I keep my mouth shut or express my anger?
For instance, « That must be awesome to have nothing to do but relax! » said to a spouse that is struggling to fill his or her agenda not to stay at home; or « A new country in 6 months? Awesome! Don’t worry, you’ll adapt! » when you have finally succeeded to build a fragile stability after several months of huge efforts. Every question and the reaction that it implies are very unique to every single person.

One little recommendation: Feel free to consider those remarks as you wish. You may ignore them or react to them as long as they serve your own purpose and actions. Do not forget though that they were not made to hurt you.

So what? Same same but different! Be yourself but differently!

Think about all these shocks. What can they bring into your life? You face a closed door or you meet obstacles on your road? Consider them as chances to think out of the box and try a new path. Take a few steps back, see a global picture and become who you truly want to be far from the « normality » you were used to live in. You won’t face fatality but will make your own choices.