I have now been living in England for seven months, and if the theory is correct, I should be experiencing a culture shock or trying to get over it. It means that I should be frustrated, struggling and constantly anxious while trying to adjust and fit into the new environment. Nope, that hasn’t happened and doesn’t seem to be happening! Honestly, I have not felt the slightest hints of a culture shock so far. But what have I experienced?
The Traditional Four Stages of Cultural Adjustment
Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg has conceptualised four different stages of cultural adjustment that supposedly every expat should be experiencing. In short, they are:
- The Honeymoon – characterised with initial euphoria when everything seems exciting and you’re extremely involved in the new culture. Basically, you’re enjoying it as a tourist – you’re overly motivated to get to know a new culture and are intrigued by all the differences and similarities of your home culture and the new culture. With all this excitement, it feels that you’ll have no problems fitting in.
- Culture Shock – when the novelty of all the exciting and intriguing things has worn off, irritation and hostility gradually creep in. Now all you see are the differences and problems, and even the smallest things seem frustrating. You also start feeling homeless and feel more and more distant with the locals.
- Gradual Adjustment – as you get more acquainted with the culture, its cues and “logic”, it seems less frustrating. You start to appreciate some of the differences of the new culture and feel less isolated from the locals. Your reactions are less emotional, and you learn more about the culture.
- Feeling At Home – you have adjusted to your new life and call it your home. Now you can enjoy living and work up to your full potential.
Four Three Stages of Cultural Adjustment
I’m no anthropologist (I wish!), but here’s how I’ve been doing so far aka my three stages of cultural adjustment:
- The Bittersweet Honeymoon – I don’t really remember the euphoric feeling, although every new day was exciting and I did look at things as a tourist. But then again – I’ve also had this ability back in my hometown Riga, and I’ve always tried to find even the tiniest and silliest things that would excite me and distract me from the routine. I did notice differences and similarities between the cultures, however, I approached it as a learning process where I needed to figure out how things work around here and how am I supposed to act in any given situation. But I never had the feeling that fitting in will be an easy task. All that was accompanied by a slight (or sometimes more intense) frustration as I needed to find a job before I ran out of money.
- Gradual Adjustment – most of the things still seem exciting and intriguing, and I haven’t felt irritated or hostile. Yes, I do face some frustrations and problems, but I have never thought that the reason for them to be in my life is me living in a different culture. Things, places, faces, customs and processes become more and more familiar and various frustrations challenge me less and less. I don’t really feel homesick. I miss my family, friends and cats, but keeping in touch with them on a daily basis helps me avoid feeling sad and lonely.
- Feeling At Home – within seven months (or even less), I have reached the point when I can wholeheartedly call Manchester and England my new home. I enjoy my life here, I enjoy work, and I can’t wait for what the future has in store for me. At the same time I know there is still a lot to learn and growing to do, so I’m still excited.
Am I Any Different?
I am quite sure I’m not. I think it all depends on how we look at things. I do remember experiencing a slight culture shock when I moved to Malta to study there for a semester. Everything seemed too different, strange and frustrating back then. I was truly homesick for quite some time, but with time adjusted and enjoyed the whole experience.
Yes, I am more mature, more experienced. And I also think I was more prepared for this challenge. I did my research beforehand, had visited the city. And also, English culture is more similar to Latvian (if compared to Maltese), and to be honest, sometimes I feel like I’m more English than Latvian.
In case you are about to embark on a similar adventure as I have, here’s my advice:
- Try your best to prepare for the new situation, new culture and new circumstances. Especially if you’re an introverted expat (speaking from my own experience). The more you know in advance, the less potential surprises you might have during your first weeks and months.
- But also learn to be flexible. Things might not always work out the way you have expected them to – flexibility will be your best mate.
- Be aware of the cultural adjustment stages and learn to recognise them. Then, when you end up in a frustrating situation or feel depressed, you will be able to understand your reactions to these situations. Don’t stress about it, embrace it, shrug your shoulders and move on.
- Remind yourself how brave you are! This is so important. I did struggle with this one myself, but luckily I had many people around me (and back at home) constantly telling me things like “It takes some balls to do this!” It does! And not everyone is ready to turn their lives upside down just like that. Write it on a post-it note and stick it to the mirror if needed, but make sure you know this.
- Be patient, especially when trying to understand unfamiliar things and situations and dealing with people. You might not find all the answers right away, but further observations and interactions with native species will help you get there.
- Learn to laugh at yourself. Yes, you will end up in weird situations, and you will end up doing something wrong or saying something stupid. So what? Aha, embarrassing, now let’s move on!
- Take one day at a time. Everything will be overwhelming without you trying to complicate things. Therefore I suggest you go easy on yourself during the first weeks and months. Yes, it is also important to stay sane during this time, however, you deserve a break, and a nice treat or two. Do all the things that make you feel good. If you will ask too much from yourself, sooner or later you will fail and it will feel way worse than it would in other circumstances.
- Create your social support network. Whether it’s family and friends back home or new friends from your new hometown, it is important to have someone to talk to about your challenges and daily struggles. Share your stories and photos, start a blog if you feel like it!
- Keep yourself in good mental and physical shape. Sleep well, exercise, eat healthily and try and be happy. Yes, I know how impossible it might seem sometimes! I’ve been there…
I would love to hear how other expats have experienced the cultural adjustment process! Feel free to share in comments below.
Note: This post originally appeared on Expat in MCR (expatinmcr.com) blog which has since been renamed to Dream Chaser (dreamchaserwrites.com).