expat life

13 tips to cope with culture shock

19 Comments 06 October 2011

airplane taking off

Before you get on the first flight home, try a few of these tips to help with your culture shock.

One of the most isolating, frustrating things that an expat can experience is culture shock. Culture shock happens to us all–and what some people don’t know (or realise) is that culture shock can also happen when we return from a visit to the homeland, not just when we first move to a new country.

An American expat emailed me recently, ‘you seem to love living in England so much, don’t you miss the States? I don’t know how you can like living here so much. It seems whatever I do, it’s wrong. I try to be positive when I start the day but I just want to cry myself to sleep every night.’

I felt her pain and said I haven’t always loved living in England and I don’t always now, but that I have strategies I try to use for enjoying my life wherever I am. I gave some suggestions. I told her she isn’t alone. And I asked if I could use some of her email but not her name to write a blog post that might help a few others. She agreed. I look forward to hearing her progress (Good luck, A!).

Easy tips for dealing with culture shock might help you lessen the pain and move through it more quickly.

1. Remember that everyone gets culture shock.

The difference is how different people deal with it. It is one of the most alienating things to experience–the knowledge that there is so much new stuff you don’t know where to begin, sudden realisation that everyone else is in on the joke apart from you, the feeling that this is a party that you weren’t invited to, or the anxiety that if you try you’ll only be knocked back down again.

2. Address your most basic needs first.

Focus on getting a place to stay, knowing where where to get food, being aware of the dangers in your new environment and how to protect yourself and your property, and understanding basic routes–to and from work or school, the hospital, your GP, the police.

Make a list of important phone numbers–both here and at home and put it where everyone in your house has access to it.

Get a map of the local area, mark important landmarks.

Building this solid base you can then start to learn more about your new surroundings.

3. Learn what you need to know.

The more you know the more in control you’ll feel. A lot of culture shock is not knowing what the heck is going on and getting really fed up with that status.

Watch what the locals do–is the weather too hot to function mid-afternoon? If so, how do locals cope? Do businesses have strange opening hours? How do the locals schedule their day?

Learn local laws about parking, driving, crossing the street, walking your dog, and alcohol consumption. Also learn about local ordinances or cultural norms about what to do with your trash/rubbish, dress codes, opening times for shops and restaurants, noise levels, sunbathing and queuing.

Most countries have excellent guides written by expats. A great one for Britain is, Rules, Britannia by Toni Hargis.

Remind yourself that different doesn’t always mean wrong.

4. Adjust your expectations.

Don’t ever expect the locals to make adjustments for you. It’s a bonus if they do.

When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.’ Clifton Fadiman

5. Take a tour. Or two.

Does your (or your partner’s) company offer orientations for employees and families? Use them. These are usually well thought out and can be really useful.

Does a local tourist company offer walking or bus tours in your area? Go on as many as you can. This will help you learn about the interesting parts of the area while also learning the routes and landmarks.

6. Find a routine.

Routines will add to your sense of control. Especially if you are the accompanying partner as you will not have as much of a routine as the partner who is at work.

7. Stay organised.

Your life will feel slightly less chaotic if you know where important documents are, if you can find where you put the pens, if you know where to look for your address book, if you have an easy place to keep maps of the area, if you have the kids’ schedule on the wall so everyone can refer to it, etc.

8. Find new favourites.

Your local shop doesn’t have the foods you loved at home? Make it a mission to search for new favouties here. Find a favourite candy bar, park, coffee shop, restaurant, route to work, time of day…

9. Make your home a sanctuary.

If you have a safe, comfortable place where you can go to escape the relentless challenges, you will be able to recharge and go back out into this new world again. It’s okay to take a weekend off and hang out at home with your DVDs, food that someone sent from home, and long Skype conversations with friends and family back home.

10. Nurture your self esteem.

Moving to a new country and dealing with a constant bombardment of new stimuli will inevitably lead to some knock-backs and over time that may lower your confidence. Find ways to maintain and boost your confidence and you will keep bouncing back with plenty of energy to face new challenges.

Set goals and work towards them. When you achieve them, reward yourself to emphasise your success. Goals can include learning to drive in the new country, learning a week of local dishes, setting up a regular coffee morning for other new arrivals, or start learning the local language. (Actually, doing something that helps others, like setting up the coffee morning for new arrivals is always a great self esteem booster.)

You can also volunteer, or depending on your visa status, you can get a job. Both of these occupations often have opportunities to boost your self esteem by providing projects for you to complete well.

11. Exercise.

Exercise helps our bodies get rid of stress hormones that contribute to fatigue, illness and disease. It also gives us endorphins that help us feel amazing!

12. Avoid negative people.

There’s always some people who just don’t want to enjoy life. Surround yourself with the positive people who understand what you’re going through, but who are loving their adventure. Let them influence you.

13. Share.

If you are overseas with a partner, talk about your frustrations with them and they will understand why you might be more sensitive than normal. If you are alone, talk to other expats. Try not to talk to people back home because they will worry, and try not to complain to locals because they may not understand.

Another fantastic place to share is online forums and blogs–there’s hundreds of blogs of people going through exactly what you’re going through.

Ask your partner and children how they’re feeling. Help them understand the stages of culture shock.

Set aside regular time for you to spend with your family and/or partner. If you are overseas alone, seek out friends and make time to spend with them.


If these tips help you, please feel free to share them with others!



Your Comments

19 Comments so far

  1. david says:

    Hey! What a great post. When I came to Australia from Scotand 2 years ago, I found it easier than I expected. However, I did experience mild culture shock.

    Your post gives great advice.

    What helped me was taking the risk of trusting human nature, making friends and sharing my thoughts and feelings with my “new Aussie family”. Buiding a social network, and building a life, is important.

    I have tried to see and do as much as possible in my new home country, and am always asking what people are up to, and what they suggest I should try next, to really experience a ife down under.

    It isn’t always easy, but if you can emigrate, you can do anything!

    • Michelloui says:

      Nice to ‘see’ you David! Great advice about building a life in your new home, and also seeing as much as you can (and asking others what they recommend). And I especially love your comment: ‘if you can emigrate, you can do anything!’

  2. globetrotter says:

    This last move was a bit traumatic and I still don’t know why! (Maybe cos I stopped working fulltime or cos my kids were now at an age where they did not need me full-time or maybe the years of corporate travel had finally taken its toll on me – who knows!)

    I started blogging daily in March and also going to the gym as often as I can.

    I haven’t lost any weight(!), I’ve written over 200 posts (some good, some blah), but it all makes sense now.

    Having that routine, something to do, something to look forward to.

    Oh yes!

    • Michelloui says:

      It’s really interesting how even an experienced expat can still be susceptible to the difficulties or issues of culture shock. Sounds like there were some other life changing events happening at the same time though. I’m glad the blogging and the gym are helping, (even if not for weight loss!).

  3. Expat Mum says:

    Great post, and thanks for the plug! Not sure if it’s any consolation, but no matter how long you live in a country, you’ll always be slightly different. It’s how you deal with this that matters.
    I hope A feels better soon!

  4. Great post. I definitely found adjusting to a new country was a lot easier once I had established a routine. Now I’ll just have to adjust to moving back to the UK in 18 months’ time!

    • Michelloui says:

      Ah well that’s a project for you–write a list of tips for repatriation! Wow, so soon?

  5. Tattieweasle says:

    Just reading this made me realise how amazing my mum was charging about all over the world after my dad always making a home for me to feel safe in no matter where…

  6. This article captures a lot of practical information, and is a very good start. As you point out, the feelings you ascribed in #1 (feeling left out, not in on the joke, not invited to the party) are shared by many people, but they don’t tend to be true. Most people are happy to help out but they have to know you’re there first. So I would definitely add a tip of MAKING YOURSELF get out and meet people by joining groups, attending talks and events, meeting people through school/work/playgroup/class. Invite a neighbor for coffee or tea, do some volunteer work with school/community. It gives you several things to do and you’ll feel better knowing people appreciate and depend on you to do your part. You’ve got to put the effort in, but over time your circle gets wider and you make acquaintances that become friends.

    • Michelloui says:

      Linda that’s a great addition–really putting emphasis on getting proactive about getting that coffee morning sorted, or actually volunteering, not just ‘put it on a to do list’.

      And you;re right, even though it feels like you have no idea whats going on, people are usually pretty happy (sometimes flattered even) to be able to help.

  7. Christy says:

    This is so great! I just moved to England from Chicago & am definitely in the midst of culture shock. Thanks for the tips!

    • Michelloui says:

      Welcome to England Christy! I had culture shock big time when I moved here. I would have loved to have seen some tips like this when I started to get culture shock so I really hope these do help you.

  8. Paige Holde says:

    Wow. This post was really excellent. I especially like the quote about countries being designed for its own people. I think people forget that when they travel, let alone move, to a foreign destination.

    I work for a relocation company that works with a lot of expats. I’m sending this to everyone so that they can share it with their transferees.


    • Michelloui says:

      Thanks for stopping by Paige! And I’m really pleased you find these tips so useful! Culture shock and homesickness are the two biggest issues for expats (but of course, not the only issues) and I know from experience that just a tips are all some people need to get back on track and really enjoy their time overseas. I hope these tips help the expats you work with.

  9. Michi says:

    There are terrific tips, I’m bookmarking this. I’m going through some very intense homesickness what with the holidays just around the corner, and home seems so far away (and therefore expensive). It’s so comforting to know that I’m not the only one though.

    • Michelloui says:

      No, you’ll never be the only one. It’s really tough with the holidays. And homesickness is another thing to culture shock which I just so happen to be blogging about next…! 😉

  10. Louise says:

    Fab post and great site – just found you. Great tips for working through those initial stages of adaptating to a new life in a new country.

    I repatriated to the UK eight years ago now and although I love my country there were challenges in reverse.

    Now in Portugal I find I go through phases of feeling really comfortable then something happens to rock that – often caused by an underlying clash of values and beliefs and I have to find my equilibrium again…living abroad is a work in progress – but then so I guess is life!

    • Michelloui says:

      Thanks for your comment Louise! Always great to connect with other expats and I love meeting expat coaches.

      I really understand your comment: ‘living abroad is a work in progress — but then so I guess is life!’ So true!!

      Off to check out your site now…

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An American writer in the UK for over 20 years. Lives in Essex. A pretend extrovert.

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