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by Vault Careers | March 10, 2009


Most of the practical issues of living abroad, such as visas, health insurance and housing have already been covered. Once you arrive in your destination country, however, the single biggest issue will face will be somewhat intangible: culture. Culture is a set of shared, accepted behavior patterns, values, assumptions and common experiences. It defines the social structure, the expectations and the norms of communication for the society.

No matter where you go, you will encounter belief systems different from your own. How intense the differences are, of course, will depend on where you go. If you're heading to England or Australia, the cultural differences, though still there, will not be as marked as the differences you would encounter in, say, Moscow or rural China.Culture is sometimes mistakenly thought to be just the visible signs of a society, such as the food, the clothes and the houses. With the spread of American movies, literature and cuisine worldwide, it can be tempting to think that cultures are becoming more similar. But it is misleading to think that differences in cultures are eroding: Just because people dress the same and eat the same food, it doesn't mean they think the same. They don't. For this reason culture is sometimes referred to as an "iceberg" the visible part (clothes, music, taste in food) being only a very small portion of the whole. The most important aspects of culture (our values, thought processes and belief systems) are hidden below the surface and are not immediately visible.

The cultural iceberg
When working overseas, it's helpful to keep the iceberg analogy in mind. For example, even if your Swedish office colleagues all wear Western-style suits and speak impeccable English, don't be fooled into assuming they will think and act like you in all situations. While every culture is different, there are some underlying similarities between groups of cultures. Academicians and anthropologists have attempted to classify the world's cultures into groups bound together by underlying or overarching themes. The most famous of these is probably G. Hofstede's Cultural Patterns. Hofstede divided cultures along several lines:

  • Power distance: How equal/unequal societies are in their distribution of powers
  • Uncertainty avoidance: The extent to which societies tolerate ambiguity
  • Individualism/collectivism: How societies value and have allegiance to a group rather than to the individual
  • Achievement/nurturance: How societies value achievement behaviors vs. nurturing behaviors.


While this may seem to be a lot of anthropological lingo, these broad classifications can help you understand and determine how and why the people you come into contact with behave in a certain way. For example, "collectivist" societies place primary importance on the group and the group dynamic. Individual action is not admired. When working in a "collectivist" culture, such as Japan, you might find that individual achievement is not valued as highly as office harmony, and indeed individual actions such as speaking out or having independent thought might not be looked upon as positively as in America (a more "individualistic" society).

While these are very broad generalizations, understanding the types of society may help you predict how co-workers may act in a given situation, and understand their reactions.

Culture shock
So what happens when you come into contact with other cultures and all these overt and hidden differences? You'll experience culture shock. Basically, culture shock is the disorientation you feel in a new environment, and your reaction to that feeling. No matter your situation, and no matter how many times you have traveled before, you should expect to undergo at least some form of culture shock.

Culture shock is a well-documented phenomena (the term was first coined back in 1954). It consists of five distinct stages. You will experience the effects of each stage, though how long each stage will last, and how severe your reaction is, will depend on external variables, such as the environment (how different is it from your home culture?) and your personality (how resilient and adaptive are you?). Interestingly, studies have shown that more self-aware individuals tend to experience more intense culture shock than others, but they also tend to adapt better in the long run.

The five stages of culture shock are:

  1. Honeymoon stage: Your new environment is fantastic. You love everything about it! You embrace it wholeheartedly and experience the world around you with curious eyes. You may even compare your home country unfavorably to your new host country.
  2. Critical stage: During this stage you "crash." The euphoria of the first stage disappears. You experience strong feelings of dissatisfaction and become very critical of everything around you. You may experience difficulties in communication and feelings of negativity, impatience, anger and sadness. This is the stage most people think of when they think of "culture shock," and it is also the time when the most damage can be done at work or in social interactions.
  3. Adjustment stage: A sense of humor about the situation re-emerges. You realize things aren't all bad. You have a more balanced outlook. You may even feel ashamed of the negative thoughts you previously experienced.
  4. Adaptation stage: In this stage you develop a new sense of appreciation for your host culture. You may find yourself adapting some of the customs and habits of the new culture in your daily life. At this point, you've gotten over the worst of culture shock.
  5. Re-entry stage: The fifth stage of culture shock refers to the problems of reintegration back to your own country (also called "reverse culture shock").The important thing to remember about culture shock is that it is entirely natural, and not a personal weakness. But just because it's normal doesn't mean that it's not potentially harmful. Culture shock and the inability to adapt is one of the major reasons for those working abroad to return home.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues