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  • Writer's pictureSANDRINE GELIN G&L SHIFT

The 6 keys to successful cultural adaptation in a new host country

Expatriation means opening up the field of possibilities for oneself and one's loved ones, while at the same time having to face numerous challenges that require intense adaptation to a new reality. A true "transplant" - one is going to plant one's roots outside of one's country of origin, at least for a time - expatriation is a process that presents particular phases of adaptation to the host country’s culture.

The main difficulty of expatriation is the adaptation to a new and unknown culture, which can be represented by an "adjustment curve to cultural change" (1).

Stage 1: Honeymoon

This phase is characterized by feelings of curiosity and excitement. Cultural differences are perceived as attractive and intriguing and are considered superficial differences. The expatriate also finds many similarities between his/her home culture and the host culture. After all, we are all human beings!

Key #1: The honeymoon allows us to face positively a reality that may be diametrically opposed to the one we have known until now. It can last several months. It also allows you to store positive memories and to be in high energy. Enjoy this time, keeping in mind that the host culture is different from your own and that these differences will feed your own development.

Stage 2: Initial culture shock

This phase is characterized by feelings of confusion and disorientation. The expatriate realizes that he/she does not know the basics of the host culture (languages, behaviors, food, transportation, traditions, holidays, history, etc.) and therefore experiences frustrating tensions.

Key #2: At this stage, it is important to keep your curiosity intact and to embrace everything new as a way to learn and discover, even if it is not easy. Through your daily experiences, you explore the value systems, beliefs, needs and limitations that underlie the local culture. And that is exciting!

Step 3: Superficial adjustment

This phase is characterized by feelings of success and ability to function in the new culture. The expatriate develops the ability to communicate his/her basic needs and becomes aware of the codes and behavioral cues he/she perceives.

Key #3: At this stage, it is your ability to observe and respect the host culture that will allow you to take your first steps. Your humility will be a major asset in your ability to produce positive astonishments about your host culture.

Step 4: Culture shock

This phase is characterized by feelings of hopelessness and alienation. The expatriate becomes aware of very profound fundamental cultural differences. His/her limited ability to adapt to them makes them all the more oppressive. He/she begins to question his/her own value system and sense of self.

Key #4: During this phase, you may experience some "homesickness" that echoes your appreciation of real cultural differences. This phase can occur during the colder winter months. At this stage, do not remain alone. Try to find support around you, among the local expatriate community, as they have probably experienced the same feelings, or among your local friends who have the ability to empathize. The support of a specialized coach at this stage can also be very useful to get through this phase, probably the most difficult stage of the adaptation process.

Step 5: Reintegration and compensation

This phase is characterized by feelings of self-assertion and rebellion. The expatriate, who is now aware of the fundamental values, attitudes and codes of the new culture, intentionally breaks the rules in order to gain a sense of control.

Key #5: Feeling powerful and in control probably reflects a positive image of yourself as someone who is able to distance oneself from the codes of the local culture, while knowing and understanding them to a large extent. Here, you are in a phase of transgressive transition. The importance is in the word “transition” since the transgressive aspect, if it remains, can lead you to drift towards a form of disrespect towards the local culture. Pay particular attention to your need for control if it leads you to too many culturally unacceptable acts or thoughts.

Step 6: Autonomy and independence

This phase is characterized by feelings of well-being and self-confidence. The expatriate has mastered the local cultural codes and what was once unknown has become reassuringly familiar. He/she is able to combine what he/she perceives as good in his/her own culture and in that of the host country, in a relationship that increases his/her personal happiness and benefits those around him/her.

Key #6: It is at this stage that you can fully deploy your new intercultural skills, developed throughout your learning. You are able to carry out your personal, professional, family and social projects in an appropriate way and you have found an optimal level of energy.

You are now equipped to live the different stages of your intercultural adaptation with full awareness! Thus, you will go through this process of learning and growing by identifying the phases you have gone through, the one you are going through now and those that are still to come.

In all cases, remember that each stage of this transitional experience is normal and that its duration varies greatly. The whole process can take up to 1 or 2 years. Also keep in mind that each member of your family may move from stage to stage at a different pace. Your respective evolutions will be impacted by all your experiences, whether personal or professional.

Sandrine Gelin-Lamrani

(1) The process of intercultural adaptation can also be described in 4 main simplified steps, in the form of a U-curve (J.S. Black and M.E. Mendenhall - 1991 - U-Curve Adjustment Therory) or even an inverted U.

(2) This article was originally written in French on Expat pro.

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