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Culture Shock Of Relocation

What To Expect When You Relocate

relocatingWhether moving across the world or across the country, culture shock presents one of the most unique and complex transitions we can face in our lives. As well as relocating, sojourners are also faced with career, family, social and even language transitions. Culture shock is associated with stress, anxiety, confusion and feelings of being lost or out of place. It effects the way we think about ourselves and others, the way we interact and how we handle our emotions. Surprisingly to many, culture shock can show up even when relocating from one region to another within our own country – we assume ‘culture shock’ only occurs when moving to a completely different country. To coin a well-known phrase, when relocating, “expect the unexpected”.

When expatriates and sojourners experience culture shock, it can lead to dissatisfaction and an early return home. For companies who can spend as much as $1 million US dollars over a 2 year period to send an employee and his/her family to a country like Asia, failed assignments can equate to lost contracts, dissatisfied customers and huge losses. For the individuals, this may mean family conflict, lowered self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and ambiguous goals. According to a survey of major American companies who assign employees abroad, the most common factors in assignment failure are partner dissatisfaction (96%), family concerns (93%), an inability to adapt (91%) and job performance (86%).

What is culture shock, really?

The term “culture shock” was originally used in the 1950s to describe the physical and emotional discomforts often produced when a person moves from one cultural environment to another. There are several stages to culture shock from initial entry shock through acculturation and the subsequent re-adjustment following a return home. Each can be either on-going for different lengths of time, or appearing at clearly defined times. The progression is not usually linear, but fluctuating.

Though described in different ways, the stages of culture shock are represented by the following similar characteristics:

  1. Honeymoon or Euphoric stage – As imagined, this is the time period just before and just after the move that everything is new and exciting. Energy and enthusiasm are high and it feels, for the most part, like a holiday.
  2. Irritability/Hostility or Disintegration stage – During this stage, there can be strong feelings of dissatisfaction and difficulty as any original excitement turns into discomfort. Generally thought of as the ‘culture shock’, this stage can be recognised for difficulties in communication, impatience, anger, sadness and a feeling of incompetence.
  3. Adjustment stage – A sense of direction as well as a sense of humour begins to re-emerge and the person may begin to feel a certain life balance.
  4. Adaptation stage – This stage is signified by a feeling of increasing confidence and a sense of belonging. The individual will associate within the context of the new culture and find that many of the customs, habits and cultural practices are easily adopted and integrated.
  5. Re-entry shock – When returning to ‘the starting point’, people often experience ‘reverse culture-shock’ whereby re-adjusting to the old culture is as hard, if not more difficult, than the original move.

One Step Further – Self-Shock

Like many transitions in life, such as developing from adolescence into adulthood, single life to married, changing jobs or job roles, becoming a parent, married life to single, bereavement, retirement and so on, we frequently ask ourselves “who am I?” But unlike the transitions we face at home, moving to a new cultural environment can turn from culture shock to “self-shock”. Imagine for a moment other changes and transitions you have faced in your lifetime. All the while, you were surrounded by family, friends, colleagues and a community that, in effect, helped you find the answer to “who am I?” by sharing societal norms and standards. While you wrestled with the change, you were able to look at and tap into what was commonly understood and acceptable all around you.

At home we have a mirror which helps to validate and re-affirm us. Within a new environment, the mirror no longer exists. So, at a time when you are seeking the answer to the “who am I” question, your surroundings are asking “who are you?”.

Moving begins with encountering a new environment and evolves into encountering a new you !


Why is it that some people have successful, adventurous relocations while others struggle? There are many answers to this question. Some key characteristics of an individual’s ability to successfully relocate include interpersonal skills and sociability, expectations and realistic short and long-term goals, pre-departure research, similar previous experience, flexibility, family communication habits, high levels of support, and focus of control. Ironically, the more self-aware an individual is, the higher likelihood of strong culture/self shock. At the same time, that strong self-awareness is utilised to progress through into successful acculturation.

Top Ten Tips

These top tips can ease any stress of the culture/self-shock transition and help you to stay on track with both your career and personal life:

  1. Know that what you are experiencing is normal – What starts as an exciting experience can often lead to a period of time that is uncomfortable. Know that there are many ways to work through the transition and that, as you acculturate to your new community, opportunities and enjoyment increase. Be gentle and patient with yourself.
  2. Take great care of you – First, and always.
  3. Fully research your destination – What are its customs and language? Where are the schools, shops, entertainment facilities? What’s the annual weather like? How do people get around? Are special legal, health or tax documents needed? Are there different expectations at work? Are there facilities for the rest of the family? Spend time on the internet to find out or hire someone to support you. Consulates, embassies, travel agents and, of course, the local people can provide a huge amount of information.
  4. Communicate carefully with yourself and others – Not only are you transitioning to new surroundings but others are trying to get to know you. In our place of origin, much of how we act and communicate is through shared meanings for things whereas in your new location, nuances of behaviour can be very different. Learn to listen deeply to everyone around you and be clear on what is being said. Observe your spoken language as well as the self-talk inside your own head. Is it positive or is it negative? Is it truly what you feel or a reaction to fear and confusion?
  5. Create a strong community around you – One of the most important tips, take time to deepen the healthy relationships you currently have and create positive ones in your new community. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t understand” or “I need your help”. Many people welcome the opportunity to support others, particularly if they clearly know what it is you need. Having a strong community of loving and positive people can make all the difference in an intercultural transition.
  6. Avoid all negativity – Stay positive with yourself and with those around you. And avoid toxic people, who drain your energies. If your inner and outer worlds are positive, so your experience will be too.
  7. Look forward instead of backward – Often when we move, we remember ‘the good old times’ of our other location. And its great to look back at who we have been by scrapbooking memories or revisiting journals and diaries. To smoothen out your intercultural transition, be present and moving toward your goals, not spending time comparing ‘there’ and ‘here’.
  8. Set yourself goals – Before moving, create goals that are a true reflection of who you are, what is important to you and what you need. Make them clear, realistic and fun. Write them down so that you can look at them again and again. Tell someone about them who can support you and remind you of your intentions. Once you have relocated, create other goals, smaller daily, weekly and monthly goals that pull you along because they are truly yours.
  9. Hire a coach – Hiring a coach who specialises in expatriation or repatriation is another way to reduce the stress of an intercultural transition. Check out his/her background, training, experience and coaching process to ensure that you are hiring the best coach for you. Most importantly, make sure that you ‘click’ with the coach and have rapport. Anything that gets in the way of the coaching relationship hinders it so take the time to find the right one for you.
  10. Remember “Opportunity” – Above all, find opportunity in every event and have great fun!

About Nancy Morris

Nancy, a graduate in psychology and communication, is internationally recognized as a specialist in business psychology. A champion of the educational approaches of microlearning, Nancy’s work and research have focused on the key elements for creating success and achievement in one’s business and personal life. Nancy hosts in-person presentations for international business and the general public. In addition to her on-line programs, she offers consulting services to the business community and corporate sector.


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