Addressing Culture Shock
Expatriates Require Ongoing Cultural Training
By Amelia Young | February 26, 2020
You’ve probably heard of culture shock but may never have explicitly thought about what this means. Culture shock often occurs with significant transitional experiences and can be described as “a psychological reaction to a totally unfamiliar or alien environment” (Moran, Abramson, Moran, 2014, p. 243).
We encounter culture shock when we find ourselves in unexpected situations where our automatic coping mechanisms don’t recognize how to react. When in familiar situations, we are not consciously aware of how we orient ourselves to various situations because it’s automatic. Because we are entirely familiar with our own culture, we feel comfortable with cues we encounter, such as “words, gestures, facial expressions, customs or norms” (Moran et al., p. 243). Culture shock is a response to anxiety caused by losing the familiar and encountering the unfamiliar.
Culture shock can be experienced by anyone encountering unfamiliar environments. In his book, Alvin Toffler (1970) recognized a type of shock he called future shock (as cited in Moran et al., 2014). When cultures change rapidly, groups can experience this type of culture shock. Today large groups of people are being bypassed by mainstream civilizations due to being unable to cope with the modernization resulting from substantial and accelerated “technological, scientific, and knowledge advances” (p. 244). These people experience the same stages of culture shock as expatriates, people who work and live outside their native country. D. W. Klopf (as cited in Moran et al., 2014) has identified six primary stages of culture shock.
- Preliminary stage –You prepare for travel and are excited to begin the adventure, but you likely have unrealistic expectations.
- Spectator stage –Can also be considered the honeymoon stage. You’re fascinated by the sights and excited to be among a new culture.
- Participation stage –The initial excitement has waned, and you’re getting into the nitty-gritty challenges of life within a different culture, especially the hard work required if you must learn a new language.
- Shock stage – Adjusting to the new culture is becoming overwhelming and challenging to handle. Feelings of irritability, depressions, lethargy, and loneliness are being triggered by challenging tasks and everyday life.
- Adjustment stage – By this stage, you’ve begun to develop relationships with the locals. You are beginning to feel accepted and are developing a sense that you are identifying with the new culture.
- Re-entry stage – For those living abroad temporarily, this becomes the transition stage where you must return to your old life and begin the stages again, but in reverse. Reverse culture shock can result in disorientation and discomfort.
Multinational enterprises (MNE) can help support their employees and reduce culture shock by carefully considering the expatriate selection process. Surveys indicate that individuals who possess characteristics such as “flexibility, personal stability, social maturity, and social inventiveness are likely to more easily adjust to cultures outside their own (Moran et al., 2014, p. 245). In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, Linda Brimm (2016) encourages MNEs to consider assigning international roles to what she calls “‘global cosmopolitans’— highly educated, multilingual professionals who have already lived, worked, and studied for extensive periods outside their home regions” (p. 1). Brimm identifies five-key characteristics that make global cosmopolitans highly effective at tackling the complexities associated with intercultural situations. Because of their international experiences and exposure to multi-cultural living, global cosmopolitans may be less susceptible to the psychological challenges of culture shock.
- Global cosmopolitans embrace and see change as an opportunity and as a normal and positive part of life.
- Global cosmopolitans redefine the bounds of a situation and view it from different perspectives and angles. They will adapt when faced with unexpected or new conditions.
- Global cosmopolitans possess self-awareness and are flexible. They can reinvent themselves and are willing to experiment with their identities as they move into new settings.
- Global cosmopolitans absorb the subtle and emotional aspects of change and find assimilating into a culture rewarding.
- Global cosmopolitans seize opportunities presented them as chances to learn. They are eager to use new ways of thinking and are willing to take risks that lead to self-efficacy.
Once expatriates are identified, the organization must ensure these individuals receive training before, during, and after time spent working abroad. Training can help individuals understand the cultural differences in both leadership and communication styles, as well as within the local community. However, it’s crucial expatriates recognize that cultural training can oversimplify cultures because “within a country, cultural differences may vary by region and individuals may not conform to cultural norms” (Smith, 2019, p. 22). Nothing can substitute for actual experience.
Many organizations don’t consider the importance of repatriation training. Returning home after evolving to the culture within the assignment country can cause a reverse culture shock as individuals try to settle back into their pre-international assignment lives. It can be extremely stressful for the individual and their families. When organizations do not provide expatriate training, 50% of these individuals leave their organizations within 2-years. When they are provided repatriation training after they arrive home, that number drops to 25% and is as low as 10% when repatriation training is provided before their return (Smith, 2019).
Culture shock is inevitable for expatriates, but MNEs can help minimize the discomfort and anxiety it causes. When employees are sent to other countries, organizations have an “obligation to ensure that such persons are adequately selected, prepared, and supported, as well as assisted when they return to the homeland” (Moran et al., 2014, p. 253).
If you’re interested in learning more about how to optimize the potential benefits of expatriate assignments check out this article by Molinsky & Hahn (2016) that appeared in the Harvard Business Review: 5 Tips for Managing Successful Overseas Assignments
Brimm, L. (2016). What the best cross-cultural managers have in common. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 2–4. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/06/what-the-best-cross-cultural-managers-have-in-common
Molinsky, A. and Hahn, M. (2016). 5 tips for managing successful overseas assignments. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/03/5-tips-for-managing-successful-overseas-assignments
Moran, R. T., Abramson, N. R., & Moran, S. V. (2014). Managing Cultural Differences (9th ed.). Oxford: Routledge.
Smith, A. (2019). Helping expatriate employees deal with culture shock
HR Magazine, 64(2), 22–23. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/summer2019/pages/helping-expatriate-employees-deal-with-culture-shock.aspx