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.

Is Culture Shock Ruining Your Chances Overseas?

Traveling to a foreign country, living there, meeting new people, and facing success or failure abroad can trigger fear in all of us. To some, it’s a mild fear of the unknown. To others, it can be a stress-inducing, unpleasant experience. It’s rooted deep in our psyche: Differences in beliefs, race, color, religion, culture, and even language have led to innumerable acts of war and violence throughout human history. Believing that globalism has put it all behind us is naive at best. Those that think trivially of the differences between cultures, and the deep-rooted permanence of those differences, should think again.

Experiencing Culture Shock In The U.S.

Most willing expatriates will approach the prospect of an International sojourn with trepidation. Fortunately for most such feelings are usually manageable. Yet, intercultural issues absolutely cause stress. The stress of travel, of the unknown, being away from home and family, of making a mistake that leads to failure. Stress causes anxiety, and as humans we react to anxiety in much the same way we react to fear.

This exact situation happened to Venkat, after relocating his family to the United States. Venkat had been working for his employer a few years when he was invited to move to the U.S. office. It was an excellent opportunity and one that Venkat embraced wholeheartedly.

But, soon after arrival, Venkat started to have difficulty. Being from India, he was accustomed to a strong social network at work and home. Both he and his wife felt cut out of society because Americans just don’t connect like Indians do. Neighbors typically don’t become close friends, and co-workers rarely create strong after-work bonds. Venkat was unprepared for this. He felt excluded when his social invitations to neighbors and coworkers weren’t enthusiastically reciprocated. Soon, he came to feel the promises of “getting together after work” where well-meaning but insincere pleasantries — even the few times his efforts were successful the get together was stiff, brief, and conversation revolved around work.

Eventually, Venkat came to realize that Americans only get together rarely after work and when they do, it’s more an obligation than genuine camaraderie. He and his wife felt isolated, and decided to end their stay in America after about a year. The socially distant culture of America was never something they could get used to.

Understanding Culture Shock

Misunderstandings, embarrassments, and misinterpretations occur today, on a regular basis, between tourists and professionals alike. The accelerating pace of technology is speeding up communication — it’s becoming cheap and nearly ubiquitous. Where we relied on couriers that would take months to deliver a message, now we connect with people globally in seconds. The expanding pace of International business adds to the rapidly expanding, global reach of companies — and as it does, so our need to interact across cultures increases with it.

When a family, or husband and wife, are sent abroad, it’s often the partner who stays at home who experiences the worst culture shock. The professional in the family is embroiled in work, kept busy with professional obligations. The business network forms a sort of insulation from the cultural impact. This insulating effect can be stronger when an expatriate is positioned as an expert, visiting a foreign culture to lead a team, share important knowledge, or otherwise perform a critical function. At the same time, the one staying at home — possibly looking after children or a household — is not so insulated. There may be no support group to turn to. Learning to get around, picking up the local language, facing contractors or repair personnel, dealing with school officials, and learning local customs is often harder without the support of an eager team of coworkers.

Acculturation Curve

Culture shock is a normal situation. It affects nearly everyone that relocates abroad for any period of time. It may not set in immediately — in fact, early on, an opposite effect of euphoria often masks the anxiety most people experience. People living in foreign environments typically report a transition in their feelings that follow an “acculturation curve,” shown in the above figure and first introduced in Cultures And Organizations.1 Positive and negative feelings are shown on the vertical axis, while time progresses forward from left to right. The initial euphoric phase is typically short; it represents the initial feelings of adventure, seeing new lands, travel, and meeting new people. Culture shock sets in during Phase 2 in the diagram, as the euphoria begins to wear off and the realities of life in a foreign society set in. Acculturation, or adjustment to local culture, takes place during Phase 3. This is when the foreign national begins to acclimatize to differences in culture, learns to adopt and function within local customs, and establishes connections with a new social network. Finally, self-confidence and comfort with the local environment is established. This “stable state” of mind can settle as negative or positive when compared with home, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Those that are lucky enough to experience a relatively more positive stable state (4c) are ideal candidates for long-term repatriation, and quite likely are well suited to cross-cultural business relationships. This is when the visitor has “gone native.” On the other hand, a negative steady state (4a) can mean that the individual never becomes fully acclimatized. Instead they continue to feel out of place, discriminated against, or an outsider.

The feelings instigated by culture shock often lead to feelings of distress, of being out of place, longing for home, helplessness, and in some cases hostility toward the new environment (as pointed out in Managing People Across Cultures).2 Expatriates often experience higher incidence of medical problems soon after relocation, as opposed to later. These illnesses are linked to the mental state brought on by culture shock. Symptoms can be the same as those of mild neuroses, and can extend to skins rashes, appetite loss, depression, sleeplessness, swellings, palpitations, and more.

Getting Used To It

The time period for acculturation varies dramatically. Both temperament and situation factor into acculturation. The most significant common factor seems to be the time period of the foreign visit itself. People on short term assignments, say a few months, have reported experiencing all phases of the acculturation curve in the same short time. On the other hand, people on long term assignments stretching over several years indicate acculturation takes longer, as much as a year or more.

Culture shock can be so severe that assignments may need to be cut short. In extreme cases, anxiety, depression, or homesickness will directly affect work. Such cases can lead to significantly reduced performance, and even inability to function. In at least one situation I’m aware of, a family relocating to Europe experienced long-term problems with social integration. The stay-at-home partner, responsible for raising the couple’s child, developed a strong aversion to leaving the house and continually avoided learning the local language. This left the working partner saddled with most responsibilities for both business and household care, at least when it came to running errands, arranging services, and working with the local school or health care system. The anxiety of the cultural transition became exacerbated, leading to a strain on the couple’s relationship. After several years, there was little improvement. The “steady state” was clearly a negative one. Even though the husband wanted to stay abroad, the couple frequently discussed plans for returning to the United States.

In part two of this article, I’ll discuss how to prepare for and deal with culture shock, from both a management and individual perspective.

1 Cultures and Organizations: Software for the Mind, Geert Hoftstede, Gert Jan Hoftstede, and Michael Minkov, McGraw Hill.
2 Managing People Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars, Charles Hampden-Turner, Capstone.

7 Ways Western and Eastern Business Relationships Differ

Something that always surprises Westerners about Asian, South American, and Middle-Eastern (or “BRIC”) business culture is how deeply relationship driven it is. Westerners tend to think business in the East is much like business in the West, and that a good sales pitch makes a good sale. After they try this approach, we hear those same business people saying, “We’ve made so many trips to India, and it seems like there’s a lot of interest but nobody is closing the deal!” Sometimes we hear, “They don’t seem to want to spend any money, but they keep meeting with us and nobody commits to anything. We should pull out, there’s no market here.”

Eastern Business Relationships

The fact is, BRIC culture will not engage in business until a strong personal relationship has been built. It takes months, if not years, to build these relationships. In China, for instance, it is assumed about half a dozen dinners, over many months, is about right to get to know each other. During these largely social experiences, conversation is about life, children, philosophy, the arts, and a host of other topics that have nothing to do with business (a few things that should be avoided include politics, and anything related to business). Only after a potential partner gets to know you, and trust you, will the door be opened to discuss business.

Relationships are so close in many Asian cultures that the distinction between “business” and “personal” becomes blurred. For instance, Indians are welcome to drop by the home of a potential partner to get to know them better, and it would be rude not to invite them to stay for dinner or even to spend the night if they have travelled far. This holds true in many countries across Asia and the Middle-East.

Years ago I hadn’t done my research before making my first Indian business trip (there wasn’t much information available at the time). That first trip was difficult, not only for me but also for my Indian business partner. My brusque American nature and “let’s get it done” approach didn’t fit well with local culture. Twenty years later my trips around Asia are far more successful. I know the importance of slowing down my “American clock,” and of building those strong relationships. I focus on building strong business connections that are much more resilient than Western ones. On my last trip, I spent every evening having dinner with different groups of people, or spending some time at their homes. It was during these social periods that I learned important things about our project: Who we could trust implicitly, what problems we might run into, and where the political lines lay. These things aren’t discussed in the office because it’s too formal a setting — so if you don’t build the personal connections, you miss out. By the end of the trip, we knew each other better — and that means today we know how to do business together.

Eastern cultures, at least in comparison to Western norms, place higher value on strong relationships, saving face, and long term planning. Of course, ascribing the same attributes to all of the BRIC and all of Asia would be misguided. Keep in mind that the following is a list of core cultural traits that Easterners will generally value more highly than Westerners.

  1. Relationships are emphasized more than the “letter of the law”
  2. Aspiration and intentions matter strongly, not just measurable performance
  3. The good of the group outweighs the needs of the individual
  4. Face-saving tact is absolute (I’ll post an article on this complex topic soon)
  5. Long past history and achievement matters, often more than recent history
  6. Rewards should be consistent with effort, not just results
  7. Long-term thinking (years ahead, not just this year) versus short-term gains

Of course, jumping in with both feet and no preparation is the worst thing you can do. Take the time to prepare. Something as simple as talking over your plans with someone from the target country can go a long way. And if you really want to know how well your team will do, consider a cross cultural assessment or workshop.

Surviving The Asian Dinner Ritual

Westerners frequently miss the importance of the Asian dinner ritual. In fact, some Western business cultures, like the United States, keep personal relationships and business relationships so completely separate that the idea of one influencing the other is taboo. In Asia, the lines between business and personal relationships are very different. Misunderstanding this important cultural shift can lead to unrecoverable missteps.

Tips To Survive The Asian Dinner Ritual

Most Asian cultures place tremendous importance on building a strong relationship before entering into business together – or even before discussing business. Relationship building is an important precursor to developing a business relationship, and one of the best ways Asian business people get to know each other is over dinner and drinks.

Unlike in the West, the dinner ritual is not a celebration of a “done deal.” It’s part of the relationship-building in which Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian cultures invest so much importance. This is an opportunity to get to know your hosts, and vice-versa, but it’s definitely not about talking business. Expect to discuss everything except business, from the weather, to your family, to kids and hobbies. If your partners love American baseball or golf, the conversation will definitely go there. Women will often find themselves being faced with topics that are inappropriate in countries such as the United States, like what their plans for raising children are. The more open, honest, and genuine you are, the better to cement trust. This is where personal relationships are built, and business in Asia doesn’t happen without a strong relationship as a foundation.

Chinese Dim Sum in bamboo steamer
Chinese Dim Sum in bamboo steamer

Most of my clients ask about gifts. They are appropriate, usually after signing a business deal or finishing a tough negotiation or project together. As your relationship grows, it’s likely the gift giving will become more expensive. Start with rice wine (bai jiu), a good red wine (from your home region, if you live in a wine producing state), or expensive Chinese or U.S. brand cigarettes (most Chinese professionals drink and smoke). Remember the importance of “face.” If no one else brings a gift, give yours to the host privately so that you don’t embarrass the other dinner guests.

Heavy drinking is very common, but don’t overdo it. I recall one situation where an American employee got a little bit too drunk, and ended up being too straight-forward in his opinions about the project the team was working on. What he said was not complimentary to the team, and the next day I received a formal request to remove him from the project. While dinner parties can be a lot of fun, remember you are still building a relationship. Your host will be finding out who you really are, and decisions about your future business relationship will be based on the personal connection made, or not made. Let your host lead the toasts, and don’t think you’re in a drinking competition. Saying “I’ve had enough” helps your host gain face.

When it comes time to pay the bill, if you’ve been invited your host will pay. Your thanks will be welcome and appreciated. If you do feel the urge to pay, let your host know well ahead of time and avoid fighting over it at the table.

Also, if you have any special dietary requirements, let your host’s assistant know ahead of time. Your host will be very happy to accommodate your requirements, but keep in mind that events are usually planned days in advance, and you may be meeting new faces at dinner. Be considerate, and allow plenty of time to prepare.

Speaking of new faces, be sure to bring plenty of business cards. Exchange of business cards is an important ritual throughout Asia, and not having cards can be construed as disrespectful. When receiving or presenting a card, do it with two hands, thumb and forefinger grasping the corners of the card, and orient the card toward the person receiving it. A bow will often accompany receipt of a card, and you should always take time to read the card. This demonstrates respect for the person presenting it, and gives you the opportunity to find out who at the table is due the most respect.

Above all, be genuine and forthcoming, and get to know your host. By building a strong personal bond, you can look forward to a long and successful business relationship.

Travel And International Business Relationships

Time And International Business Relationships

Time clearly plays a big role in planning an International business trip, and the subsequent relationship can be a trying experience for anyone. It’s definitely the case that different cultures will clash more than others. Americans, for instance, have a very uniform and rigid expectation that much of the world conducts business more-or-less the same way. That is to say, holidays are fairly limited and known well in advance, and with few exceptions work will take precedence over personal time, and also that the work week is Monday through Friday (probably from about 8 or 9 in the morning, to about 5 in the evening). Throw into this an American sequential orientation (meaning, a schedule-driven mentality), and you have a recipe for disaster throughout much of the world.

Throughout India, for example, there are regional holidays that vary from one state to another. In fact, some specific regions will literally have holidays every week across several months — and while not everyone takes time off work for every holiday, this hardly makes it easier to manage: Knowing who will be at work on a given day can become a minor project of cultural awareness in and of itself. Just taking a quick look at my calendar, I can see significant holidays for New Years Day (January 1), January 24, January 26 (Republic Day), March 10, March 27-29 (both Holi and Good Friday), May 1 (Labor Day, an international observance), July 10, August 15, 20, and 28, September 9 and 16, October 2 (Mahatma Gandhi Jayanti), October 14 and 15, November 3 (Diwalli, which is generally followed by up to two weeks of celebration), November 14, December 25 (Christmas, also celebrated by many Indians). On top of these widely known and observed holidays will be quite a few local holidays that won’t show up on an International calendar.

Is the holiday on a Thursday, so most of the office just doesn’t show up on Friday? Or, like Venezuela, is it commonly accepted knowledge that you shouldn’t book appointments two or three days ahead of a holiday? If you’re visiting China near the New Year, plan some extra time to allow business to return to normal (you can’t count on anyone being back the week after the holiday, and for the next two weeks it’s almost impossible to schedule appointments because everyone is busy).

India is by no means unique. Turkey has more official and not-so-official vacations than any country in Europe. North and South Africa have very different holiday schedules, and many regions have quite a few local holidays that won’t show up on a typical International date book. Almost every country is going to have unique public holidays and different perceptions about local holidays and personal time off from work. Be sure you know if the person you want to visit is going to be working the week you arrive!

Personal allowances also vary greatly by country and business culture. Indian weddings often run for two weeks straight and it’s understood that anyone invited will be out of work for the entire time, if not longer as they visit friends and relatives in far away cities. From mid-July to early September much of Europe’s business activities come to a standstill as the regionally understood “vacation season” arrives. Unlike Americans, Europeans won’t be checking email while away from the office, either. Life, as a general rule, comes first before work — and a vacation means completely disconnecting from work. (But, keep in mind the reversal of seasons in the southern hemisphere, where Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina tend to shut down in January and February).

The Work Week

When planning your schedule around an International business relationship, be sure to take into account the hours and days of the work week, not just local vacation cycles. Throughout must of the West, the work week is Monday through Friday, but this preconception gets thrown out the window in many countries. Throughout the Middle East, the work week could be from Saturday through Wednesday, or Sunday through Thursday, or possibly Monday through Friday.

Likewise, there is no uniform way to know what a typical work day looks like. The work day could begin as early as 7:30 or as late as 10:00. In America lunch is probably an hour long or might just be taken at your desk, while in Latin America it may well be two hours long and followed by a siesta at home, before returning to the office around 3:00 in the afternoon (or, 1500, as some cultures will refer to “3:00 o’clock” using the 24-hour parlance). Work after lunch might resume promptly at 1:00 or, more likely throughout much of the world, sometime vaguely after lunch, and continue until 7:00 or 8:00 at night.

Working With An International Team

Once you return home, the logistics of staying in touch with your business partners may just be getting started. This is particularly true of tightly woven partnerships or outsourcing relationships.

Consider the implications of outsourcing technology to India, a culture that typically expects a high level of direction for its team members. This implies a great deal of communication. If you happen to be located in California, you’ll be adjusting to a time difference of either 11 and a half, or 12 and a half hours throughout the year. Even in the best of circumstances, you’ll be coordinating several conference calls every week at 9:00 p.m. or 6:00 a.m. between team members.

Throw into this the synchronous (or polychronic) Indian preconception about timeliness, and you could have some very frustrated Americans. Can you image a room full of groggy Americans, having driven to the office at 6:00 a.m., waiting on a conference call at 6:15 a.m. and starting to get very upset about the reliability of their partner (who has not yet dialed in)? I don’t have to imagine it, I’ve seen it too many times to recount.

Considering the implications of building an International team means taking local culture into account, including concepts about time and timeliness.