Adapting to a new culture: What’s your style of settling in abroad?

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I don’t need to tell you that adapting to a new culture is a loooong process with lots of ups and downs.

But have you ever wondered why your experience with settling in is so different from another country you lived in before?

Or if you’re a new expat, how your experience of settling in looks and feels so different from someone else’s?

That’s because your ability to adapt to anything new, not just a new culture, is an important factor that influences how you cycle through the several stages of culture shock.

In this post, I lay out the five different types of approaches that people can have to adapting to a new culture.

Keep reading to find out what’s your style and what you can do to make sure that you come out of the process with fewer battle scars.

[RELATED POST] Why it’s okay if your living abroad experience looks different from someone else’s

WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE CULTURE SHOCK STAGES

You’ve probably already heard of the different stages of culture shock which we can roughly summarize as follows:

  1. The honeymoon stage – where things are new and exciting
  2. The disillusionment stage – where things start to deeply irritate you
  3. The adaptation stage – where you learn to adjust and incorporate the new
  4. The acceptance stage – where you accept how things are and what you can’t change

A quick search on the internet gives you many variations of these stages. What they all have in common is the idea that adapting to a new culture is a linear process that we all go through in exactly the same way.

My experience has been that it’s far from a linear process. In fact, in some countries I have completely skipped some stages while getting stuck in other stages.

In Australia, New Zealand and the UK I never experienced the honeymoon phase. Rather I went straight into culture shock. In hindsight, I know exactly why these countries rubbed me the wrong way and what that says about my most important values and needs in life.

In Portugal, I skipped culture shock and went from honeymoon to adaptation. This was a big surprise to me, given that Portuguese have a vastly different culture for someone used to a Northern European way of living.

In Denmark, where I’ve been living on and off for 10 years, I’ve been working my way through adaption for several years. At this point I’ve accepted that this isn’t ever going to be an easy place for me to live in. Which is a form of acceptance in itself, you could say.

What’s my point here?

My point is that how you go through the culture shock stages is dependent on:

  • how well you match with the country you’ve chosen to live in
  • the opportunities you have for getting practicalities settled from the start (a place to live, a job/school, opportunities to meet people and learn the language)
  • and most importantly, your style of adapting to change

That’s why people can have vastly different experiences adapting to the same culture, or how serial expats can suddenly struggle in one country even with several years of experience under their belt.

[RELATED POST] Surefire ways to have a bad experience living abroad

DO YOU KNOW HOW YOU ADAPT TO CHANGE?

In this post I only focus on the different approaches people have to adapting to change, which in this case means adapting to a new culture.

In fact, everyone has a core style of dealing with anything new. Knowing what your style is can make the process of getting settled in a foreign country that much easier.

Taking inspiration from change management theories and my own observations over the years, I’ve come up with five semi-fictional characters to represent personality traits related to adapting to a new culture.

Which one speaks to you?

DISCLAIMER: Recognizing yourself in any of the following representations does not define you as a person. These representations simply refer to personality traits that you may have. It’s also possible that as you’ve changed over the years your style of dealing with change has also changed. You may even discover that you’re a mix of several characters.

ADAPTABLE ANNA

For as long as you can remember, you’ve been drawn to everything that’s different, exotic and not-your-home-town. To this day, you crave newness. As soon as you could, you left everything you knew behind, and you’re yet to look back. It’s not that you don’t love your family and friends (even if there are only a few of them). It’s just that you’re more inspired by being outside of your comfort zone. Your risk tolerance is through the roof so you’re often the first to take on everything new wholeheartedly, come what may. There’s always room for more languages, cultural traditions and habits in your life. Later in life, you’ll be a mix of all of those different places and influences, all wrapped into one person.

YOUR CHALLENGE

You are least likely to struggle with adapting to a new culture. Even if the country you’ve chosen doesn’t work for you, you’ll quickly find a way to move on or get the best out of the situation. You see life as a journey and that serves you well in expat life. But a sense of rootlessness will haunt you for a long time. Make sure to create a home base at some point in your life.

CAUTIOUS CHARLOTTE

You’re a bit of an enigma. On the one hand, you’re really curious about what else is out there in the world. On the other hand, you also really love the life you already have/had. In short, you’re a strange mix of wanderlust and homebody. Your style of adapting to a new culture is to take it slow. You cling to what gives you comfort and safety alongside you constantly observing the strangeness around you. Only after a decent amount of time do you decide what and how to let anything new into your life. Because of this you’re also more likely to move abroad together with someone you trust – so that you can always have them to fall back on. This doesn’t mean you won’t ever move abroad alone. You may actually do it precisely to prove to yourself that you can make it on your own. It’s just that you feel better when you have someone else to lean on.

YOUR CHALLENGE

If you take your need for familiarity to the extreme, you may end up living in your comfortable bubble without ever truly letting anything new into your life. Perhaps that’s exactly what you want, in which case more power to you. But if you feel alienated from the country you live in, it’s time to start taking baby steps out of your comfort zone and see what else your life could be.

FULL ON FIONA

Your idea of living in a foreign country means throwing yourself head first into every new cultural experience. Assimilation is the name of the game for you! In that sense, you’re open-minded and the first to adopt new things. You’ll proudly explain how the locals live to all of your friends and family back home and carry out any new cultural traditions as if they had always been a part of your life. Maybe you’ve truly found your place in the world, or maybe you’re just going too far – only you know what the answer is.

YOUR CHALLENGE

The dark side of full on immersion is that you risk losing your sense of self in the name of fitting in. Make sure that you maintain your own routines or traditions which make you uniquely you. You are allowed to be your international self, too!

OPTIMISTIC OLIVIA

It was your dream of living abroad (perhaps in a specific country) that drew you to moving abroad. In fact, you dreamt about it and worked towards making it happen for a long time. The first few months were amazing – everything was new and exciting. But before long, reality kicked in. Your dream no longer looked nor felt like you had thought it would. Life abroad started to feel more like a nightmare and it’s been hard work trying to get over that. Maybe you’ve carved out a new path for yourself, maybe you’ve decided to call it a day and move back or on to somewhere new.

YOUR CHALLENGE

You probably fell in love with the idea of the country you chose to move to without actually doing your homework. Even if you did do your homework, you quite likely thought that you’d just deal with things as they come. Which is a great mindset to have, except you were in no way prepared for what adapting to a new culture actually requires. Following a dream often brings with it some measure of disillusionment later down the line, and that’s okay. You’re just experiencing the worst of culture shock. The good news is that it’s time to redefine how things will look from now on, and that’s something many before you have done with great success.

CONTENT CATHY

You probably ended up living abroad against your personal preference. You probably had a very good life already before moving abroad. And yet you decided to take the plunge and live in a foreign country, whether to be with someone you love or to advance your career. Or just to tick off living abroad from your bucket list. Regardless of your motivations, all of which are completely valid, your strong sense of self and traditions give you the most difficult road ahead as you are quite resistant to change.

YOUR CHALLENGE

You probably like the idea of living in a foreign country more than what it actually takes to feel comfortable in a new culture. You have two options – to consciously move outside of your comfort zone, perhaps with the help of an accountability buddy or a coach, or to embrace that you were already quite happy before and decide to move back home. You’ll simply return one experience richer.

Let me know in the comments below – which character resonates with you? Are you a mix of several or have you changed over the years?

Adapting to a new culture
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