Everyone Goes Through the Five-Phase Cycle of Cross-cultural Adjustment

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

1. Preparation Phase

Getting ready to go abroad begins almost as soon as you decide you want to go.

There is no doubt that going to work in a foreign country is exciting and exhilarating but at the same time daunting! However, your new host country with its different language and culture can be a frustrating and sometimes painful experience.

It is important that you do your homework on your host country properly be for departure! Make certain you have sufficient finances and are mentally prepared! While working abroad will be exposed to situations you have never experienced while living back home! Having said that, the difficulties are far outweighed by the advantages.

2. Honeymoon Phase

The honeymoon phase sets in early during in your time abroad. It is the time of excitement and intrigue when everything new and different is appreciated. During honeymoon phase you will be eager to learn about and experience all your new location has to offer. You will see with your own eyes the iconic landmarks or events you have seen only through another’s lens in photographs and guidebooks. Enjoy the honeymoon phase while it lasts.

Like your entire trip it will come with the benefits of new acquaintances and memories to last a life time.

3. Frustration Phase (Initial Culture Shock)

When the honeymoon is over, you may find yourself shaken. Perhaps knowing what is ahead, though, will lessen the blow of the most trying phase of life abroad. The frustration phase or rage phase sets in when the cultural differences, the language barriers, the fatigue and other tribulations unnerve you. You may offend someone or be embarrassed yourself, but no matter what the trigger, your entry into this second phase will be clear. The most consistent advice experienced expatriates offer is to remain positive. They warn to not reject differences but to adapt to them.

During my first extended jaunt abroad, China, the frustration phase hit early. I was overly conscious of my actions, fearful of offending anyone or committing any cultural faux pas. Constantly monitoring my actions got to be too much. What really put me over the edge seems silly but was the confusing tangle of streets with cars zipping in the “wrong” direction and the seeming lack of pedestrian rights. To top that was the language barrier to overcome, but in time I began to accept both myself and my new home hoping to find the best of both worlds.

4. Understanding Phase:

Once you can get past the frustration/rage phase it will seem to be just a minor glitch in your time abroad, a glitch that makes everything from there on out seem great in comparison. After frustration you will find understanding, the phase when you become familiar with local people and customs and homesickness wears away. You will probably still make mistakes and find yourself confused, but you will be able to take these things lightly, finding the humor in them. Sometimes this will be the phase where you start seeing the humour in your trial and tribulations in the frustration phase and past experiences. Laughing at yourself and learning from your mistakes will help you advance from understanding to true acclimation.

** More details at the end of this article provide some insight on “Ways to Diminish Feelings of Culture Shock “.

5. Acceptance and Integration Phase

This phase is all about acceptance – accepting your personal background and accepting life and culture in your new location. You no longer feel isolated, but rather you have begun to integrate with culture of your host country.

Language differences exasperate this phase as you realise the difference between ‘tourist language’ and ‘living language’. The vocabulary required to go about daily life (and the problems therein) is far greater than you ever learnt on that 10 week introduction course you took before you relocated. Slang expressions throw you sideways. Life is tough. Emotions associated with this phase are typically anger and resentment toward the new culture as having caused difficulties and being less adequate than the old familiar ways.

You realise with time that you don’t have to become like the people in the new culture yourself, you just need to accept the differences and understand why they are as they are. Relate to the values and see things from their side of the fence. You come to appreciate the differences. A balanced perspective emerges that helps you to interpret both the previous home and the new host cultures. Life is becoming smoother and more enjoyable. You have made local friends and set up traditions and activities with them. Memories have been made that will be built upon. You are now aware of the local customs and well integrated in the community.

It is hard to help people during this Phase of culture shock as they are no longer open to new ideas. But you need to force yourself out the door to get past this.

While some people get stuck in earlier phases, if you can make it to acceptance phase, you will get the most rewarding travel experience possible. Then, just when you feel truly settled in, it will probably be time to go home.

Going home – Reverse Culture Shock

Many expatriates then find at some point a last phase on the curve is encountered – Going Home. Re-entry is hard after the expatriate years. Your home country probably hasn’t changed much. But you have. You felt this was the one place in the world where you thought that you belonged. The re-entry may feel like a set back as you come to terms with your new relationship with your initial culture. Prepare yourself for this. Treat the old country like a new country and apply the same techniques you learnt abroad to integrate back into the community you were once part of.

Remember – there is nothing wrong with you and most people go through these phases.

** Ways to Diminish Feelings of Culture Shock

  • “Plunge” into your host culture and wrestle with the differences.
  • Keep an open mind; it is natural to have pre-conceived ideas and beliefs that come into question while abroad.
  • Athletic activities like team sports or taking walks may be helpful.
  • Get to know others at your host school or organization.
  • Do not isolate yourself.
  • Find a local person or another expat with whom you can discuss your frustrations and encounters.
  • Learn as much as you can about your host culture.
  • Maintain a support structure with others, particularly those going through the same experience. However, do not retreat into a clique” to avoid the discomfort of culture shock.
  • Keep a journal. Record your impressions of new experiences and the transformations that are occurring within you.
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