Tips For Avoiding Culture Shock Pitfalls

In the first part of this article, Is Culture Shock Ruining Your Chances Overseas, I explored how immersion in a foreign culture can affect you, your team, and your organization. In this second part of the article I’ll introduce strategies for dealing with culture shock.

There are different ways to deal with culture shock. Early attempts at cultural migration lacked the insights we have today. For example, during British rule in India, it was commonplace for the British (as well as other visiting expatriates) to collectively distance themselves from local culture. In essence, the “shocked” individuals stuck together in small communities, socialized in clubs, and endlessly discussed how dreadful the locals were. This approach proved a very poor one when it came to cultural assimilation. It’s likely to fare no better today.

Preparing To Handle Culture Shock

Studying is one way we prepare ourselves for the adventure and challenge of an intercultural encounter. Simply reading this blog, or picking up a relevant book, provides an excellent avenue to begin such preparations. In a way, research like this is a premeditated defense against the anxiety that is likely to manifest itself. However, reading can only take one so far. What we retain after reading is far less than what we retain experientially. But more important, the value of face to face cultural experience far exceeds what we gain from reading.

More successful strategies at improving trans-cultural competence revolve around developing a healthy curiosity regarding local culture. Total immersion in a culture is by far the best way to experience its values and become attuned to the differences between it and your own culture. One of the best immersion techniques is learning the language of the other culture. While fluency is certainly an excellent goal, depending on the society, it’s often unnecessary. For instance, most professionals throughout India will have a functioning, if not fluent, capability in English. English is, today, the official language of India and more Indians speak English than any other language, with exception of Hindi. Today, English speakers in India outnumber those in all of western Europe, excluding the UK. But it’s important to remember that of the 125 million English speaking Indians, that means there are well over 1 billion that don’t speak English.

Even without fluency  in a local language, you will find that the effort you put into developing any language proficiency will be appreciated by your hosts. The goodwill of being able to speak a few phrases in common shows your good intentions. It demonstrates a willingness to learn local ways. Your hosts will often be much more forgiving of cultural mistakes, and may be flattered to see you trying hard to get to know them. Learning a local language is also an excellent way to develop a stronger sense of culture. Most language programs today will convey stories, history, and a sense of culture as part of the language course.

Avoiding the negatives of culture shock doesn’t fall entirely on the individual. Acculturation is an important topic for businesses to be aware of too. Consider the damage caused by poorly acclimatized people in the business environment: Lost sales opportunities, alienated partners, even entire lost markets. Knowing the potential dangers means limiting potential problems. That means sending well-prepared envoys, or at least minimizing cases where an incompetent or insensitive individual stays abroad, doing more harm than good.

According to Trompenaars, around twenty percent of expatriate managers suffer from severe culture shock and fail to adapt.1 Within this twenty percent figure, there are two specific, identified segments: Five percent develop such negative feelings that the local culture is actually despised, a feeling that usually takes hold after about six months abroad. These expatriates cannot function, and will demonstrate the worst negative symptoms of culture shock. Of the remaining fifteen percent, cultural adaptation never takes place. They follow in the footsteps of the colonial British around turn of the century India: Poor work will be blamed on living conditions, the ineptitude of the locals, and a backward culture. This group will identify other malcontents and avoid local culture. Both of these groups will only damage International relationships for their employers, and should return home as soon as possible. Of the remaining eighty percent, about half will function adequately, but essentially miss home and constantly look forward to returning. The remaining 40 percent of expatriates will integrate smoothly into the local culture. Performance improves, as does moral and overall productivity. This group is strengthened by their experience abroad, and will likely grow professionally because of it. Most often this group seeks out a means to stay abroad longer, if not permanently. Often they will regret returning home when it is finally necessary.

Culture Shock When Returning Home

This is where many employers fail their employees. Upon returning home, the repatriated individual again goes through the acculturation curve. Many expatriates experience problems. Individuals that have successfully acclimatized to foreign culture will experience reverse culture shock at home. Those identified in the most successful 40 percentile will quite often seek to emigrate again. These individuals can negatively adjust to “home” culture.

Employers must be aware of the cultural transition employees go through. Most often, it is when the employee returns home that their company let’s them down by failing to anticipate some of the complexities of International work and the consequences of culture shock. The employee will experience re-acculturation, just as the employee went through euphoria, followed by negative feelings and anxiety, and stabilization abroad. Those feelings, including the negative ones, will repeat. Nancy Adler, Assistant Professor of Cultural Management at McGill University, studied the re-entry process of two hundred corporate and governmental employees returning to Canada after working overseas for an average of two years. Re-entry into the original culture was found to be more difficult than the move abroad.⁠2 It seems that culture shock is not a one-time event — it happens every time someone transitions from one culture to another. This can affect work performance, take a negative toll psychologically, and even affect home life.

It can easily be made worse by an employer or a Human Resources department that’s blind to the problem, treating the employee as if he or she had merely been on vacation. Management or HR departments that have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude risk alienating an employee by dismissing their hard work and achievements while away — a situation compounded if the cultural achievements are not recognized as well. Returning expatriates are often a goldmine of information for a business. Having them talk about their cultural experiences, the challenges, and the opportunities presented is rewarding for the individual. It’s also immensely educational for local staff, and often strategic for the business at hand.

Ethnocentrism

Just as the individual experiences an acculturation curve, so too do guest cultures. People exposed to foreign visitors also go through a similar psychological reaction. The first phase of this reaction is typically curiosity, during which the host is open to the visitor — much like the euphoria of the acculturation cycle. This gives way to the second phase of the reaction, ethnocentrism, in which the host begins to judge the visitor by the standards of their culture. Such an evaluation tends to be unfavorable: Visitors are seen to be rude, naive, distant, culturally backward. Often a belief that the visitor is less intelligent emerges. Repeated or long-term exposure to foreign visitors can cause ethnocentrism to give way to polycentrism, an understanding that people of varied cultures should be measured by different standards. In other words, the view that one’s own corner of the world may not, in fact, be the center of the universe takes hold.

In When Cultures Collide, Richard Lewis very aptly wrote, “We can achieve a good understanding of our foreign counterparts only if we realize that our ‘cultural spectacles’ are coloring our view of them. What is the route to better understanding? To begin with, we need to examine the special features of our own culture.”⁠3

1 Managing People Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars, Charles Hampden-Turner, Capstone.
2 Nancy Adler, Re-Entry: Managing Cross-Cultural Transitions, Group Organization Management September 1981 vol. 6 no. 3.
3 When Cultures Collide, Richard D. Lewis, Nicholas Brealey International.

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