You’ve probably experienced some kind of culture clash in your attempt to live a normal life in a foreign country.
You know, those moments when you get so annoyed with the little things that people do that make no sense to you.
You can’t stand how the local people never smile at you.
You can’t understand why the doctor’s seem so incompetent.
You can barely keep it together when people don’t respectfully stand in line at the cashier.
And you’re absolutely ready to punch someone in the face if they respond to you in English even though you’ve been working so damn hard to learn the local language.
[enter a 100 more examples like the above and rants of epic proportions like this]
In case you’re now worried that I’m going to tell you to not get annoyed, then you can relax.
Experiencing a culture clash is not something to stuff down and pretend like it’s not happening.
Rather it’s an opportunity to venture out of our comfort zone.
In this post I will share how to do overcome a culture clash without feeling like you have to completely lose yourself in the process.
What is a culture clash?
I’ve written before that living abroad makes us hyper aware of ourselves – what we like and don’t like.
It also makes us realize all the things that we’re used to doing on autopilot.
It’s only when we’re faced with a different way of doing things – and we don’t get the reasoning behind it – that we experience what’s been called a culture clash.
We can experience a culture clash on a larger scale of how governments operate and how bureaucracy is handled.
On a group level of how people interact in a workplace or organize their shared tasks in a team.
We can also experience a culture clash between individuals – how people choose to raise their kids or what kind of food they want to eat.
Culture clashes can be rooted in values, historically entrenched practices and personal preferences.
It’s when we come in contact with behaviors and practices that look and feel different from what we’re used to that we get annoyed.
More specifically, we get annoyed because the way we have thus far thought the world works is suddenly proven to be wrong.
And voilá, [enter rant about something annoying].
Culture clashes force you to grow as a person
I know, I know, I know.
We’d all rather stay firmly in our comfort zone. But how’s that supposed to work with the reality that you chose to move to and live in another country?
Sure, maybe you didn’t really have a choice in moving and maybe you’re not really ready to morph into a new version of you.
A version of you that’s a bit like your past life and a bit like your new self. If you don’t feel ready yet, take your time.
But if you want to feel at least a little bit more comfortable than you do now with where you live, you will eventually have to take on the task of:
- Understanding the reasoning behind why things are done differently where you live, and
- Deciding whether you could include some of these things into a new version of you
How I was forced to move beyond my comfort zone
One of the biggest things that has bugged me, annoyed me, and at times made me outright furious living in Denmark is how many local people don’t really make new friends, let alone friends that are foreigners.
Meanwhile I grew up surrounded by new people coming and going in my life. The thought of never meeting and letting anyone new into my life seemed … bizarre at best and terribly boring at worst. But that’s just me.
For a long while I internalized the Danes’ rejection of me and thought there was something wrong with me. I also felt incredibly lonely because of it.
It took me years to start asking questions instead of pointing my finger at those cold and unwelcoming locals.
But once I started asking questions, I learned that Danes value their early friendships and family relations very deeply. Many (but of course not everyone) would always put those relationships above anyone new.
So, what had looked like discrimination, I could suddenly explain through the underlying value of Danes’ continously investing in their long-term relationships.
Which is a value not all that different from my own deep appreciation for my life-long relationships, especially alongside all the people that have come and gone.
As a result, I realized that I actually have the same core values with Danes when it comes to long-term relationships. It didn’t mean that suddenly I found more Danish friends. As a newcomer I was definitely not winning from this societal value. But I also stopped thinking of Danes as some evil bunch.
All I had to do to get over this perceived culture clash was to loosen up my rigid thinking and start asking questions. Doing so also helped me let go of a growing sense of annoyance and resentment.
How to move out your comfort zone – one tiny step at a time
At the very least, I encourage you to try out and explore whatever-it-is that annoys you, so you can make an educated guess about how it feels to live outside of your comfort zone.
Go ahead and refuse to stand in line at the cashier. Maybe you’ll actually find it fun and realize that nobody will scold you for it.
Go ahead and don’t smile back at people. You might start seeing interactions with people in a different light, or people might in fact start to respond differently to you as well.
Go ahead and ask questions about why things are done in a strange way where you live. You might get explanations that take you completely by surprise and you come to realize that things are not all that different from you.
Just make note of everything that annoys you, pick one thing for every week and try out what it’s like to live a little differently.
See what happens and share your experiences in the comments below.
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Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.