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How to handle Culture Shock

The different stages of culture shock – and how to make the best of them

Das war ein echter Kulturschock – That was a real culture shock!

We use this phrase in our day-to- day-life when we want to talk about something dramatically different from everything we knew before. Like: Changing your workplace from a huge company into a really small one. Or of course, coming to a very exotic country with totally different food, language, and mentality: You are immediately overwhelmed and “shocked”.

However, when talking about “culture shock” for Expats, it refers to a longer time of transition that happens in different stages and to the emotions that people typically experience during these stages.

Different stages of Culture Shock

There is not one definition of culture shock that is the same for everyone.

Of course, moving to a new country will feel different for every person, depending on the individual personality, cultural differences, and level of expat experiences. If you have a family it will also be important how well every single family member copes with these transitions.

But still, there are some patterns of ups and downs that most people will go through and that can even be more or less anticipated.

These patterns can be broken down into a module consisting of five stages.

How knowing more about the stages of culture shock can help you

The good news: If you are prepared for what’s coming, it will be much easier for you to cope with the inevitable and prevent you from falling too deeply into a mental low.

When I first heard of the stages of culture shock, I was just having a hard time starting our second assignment in the UK. Reading about how my feelings and reactions were normal was a huge relief for me. After all, in addition to the usual overwhelm, I had been reproaching myself for being ungrateful and not making as much out of this precious time as I could.
Suddenly, it became so obvious that I had also gone through these stages in previous times abroad – and also, in which stage I was now. Most importantly, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, which helped me reach it a lot more easily.

Five stages of culture shock – and how to make the best of them

Expat exploring Berlin

1. Honeymoon

What it feels like

This is a great time. Everything about your new home seems rosy and you feel rather like a tourist exploring a wonderful new country. Any differences between your home culture and the new culture seem interesting and charming. You might even idealize the new culture and believe it’s superior to your own.

You’re very busy at this stage as you have to find new supermarkets, find out about places to go to … simply organize a whole new life!

What to do

Enjoy this stage!

Use your positive energy to find new friends, and create a social network and new routines.

If you haven’t done so before moving to Germany, this is also the right time to do intercultural training.

For Expats who have been sent abroad by their company, this is often provided by the employer. That kind of training will focus on communication at the workplace, cultural values, business meetings, or Emails. Knowing about these topics can make or break the success of the assignment

However, the accompanying spouses are often overlooked. They are usually not given any training to help them to build up a whole new private life for themselves and the entire family. This may entail communication with nursery, school, or doctors, private meetings, cultural values regarding families … a much wider field than the business one that can feel extremely overwhelming.

This is where my cultural training for Expat Partners comes in. Not only will it give you information about all of these and more topics, but it will also provide you with the basic vocabulary and phrases to get smoothly through the first weeks. It will help you to make the most of this magical time: You can keep your energy for discovering exciting places instead of finding out how daily life works.

2. Initial Culture shock

What it feels like

After about three months in the new country, you don’t feel like a tourist anymore. What still seemed charming a few weeks ago, can now seem frustrating and like the incompetence of the locals. It is nagging on your self-esteem if you never seem to know how simple things work or even do “easy” things the wrong way.

Initial Culture shock
I remember almost bursting into tears when I was handed back a cheque I hadn’t filled in correctly for my daughter’s school for the third time. And to be honest, it didn’t help that my tiny 4-year-old daughter started correcting my English pronunciation.
It seemed like there wasn't anything I could do correctly anymore.

At this stage you’re likely to believe that your home country is the better and more logical place to live – after all, you know all of those rules and customs.

What to do

Give yourself grace. You have already accomplished so much: You said goodbye to family and friends back home to set out for this adventure of moving to a strange country, possibly with a totally new language.

The more pressure you put on yourself to know and do everything correctly, the more incompetent you will feel!

Keep learning the language. You are quite likely to feel frustrated in that area, too. While it seemed sufficient at first, to be able to buy some bread in the bakery, you are now starting to miss real conversations. But hey, you’re on your way to getting there, even in German!

Keep learning about the new culture. Even though cultural training might have prevented you from getting that low, it will also serve to pull you out of it more easily!

3. Full culture shock – the low point

What it feels like

However light or deep this low point may be – it means that ultimately, you’ll be feeling better again!

During this stage, you are quite likely to feel homesick. Trying to make friends with the locals might not have worked out the way you were hoping, leaving you to feel lonely and rejected.

Expat partner experiencing loneliness abroad

Quite often, this stage becomes really hard when a problem arises, or a member of the family gets ill. Maybe this wouldn’t have been a big issue at home, but in these new and strange surroundings you just don’t have the inner stability to face it: it’s just too much.

You may think that your home culture (or any other culture you’ve got to know previously) is better than this new culture. Local social behavior gets on your nerves and withdrawing under your covers may sound like the best option of all.

This may also be a difficult stage for marriage. The working partner will go to the office every day, chat to colleagues and come home full of excitement and funny stories – only to find the spouse feeling frustrated, lonely, and maybe even resentful towards the whole wide world.

What to do

If you know that this stage had to come and that you will get through it, this burden will feel a lot lighter!

It may be helpful to write about your feelings. Go back to the photos you have taken at the beginning and look through text messages or emails that you have written when you were still enthusiastic.

Keep working on your German and pay attention to your own body language signs, conversation tone, and customs. In the worst case, you may be yourself sending out signals of not being interested in conversations, or you may appear rude or superficial.

Find other Expats. They know what you’re going through as they will have experienced it similarly. But: try to look out for Expats who are successfully integrated. Someone who’s been living in Germany for 15 years and hasn’t got any German friends is not likely to make you feel at home or know what Germans really are like.

And, most important: talk to your partner. Talk about what you’re going through so that you can get through this together. It will bring you closer together instead of tearing you apart!

Try to do things together that are special.

4. Adjustment, Adaptation, and Integration

What it feels like

Gradually, you are feeling like Germany isn’t that bad after all. There are actually some nice people – your new social network.

Curiosity kicks back in again and you’ll find that there are so many things to see and do!

Your German is improving as well.

The surrounding is familiar – in a really good way.

What to do

Write another bucket list of things you want to see and explore. By now you will have heard about so many more places to see!

Do something that you wouldn’t have done at home.

Maybe skiing could become a great new hobby for the whole family?!

When we were in the UK, we happened to live close to where Jane Austen had lived. So, I challenged myself to read all her books and all biographies I could get and then see her former home. Another thing I loved doing was volunteering at my daughter’s school. One morning per week I would go and help out in the classroom.

Whatever it is for you: enjoy your time!

5. Re-entry shock

What it feels like

It may sound strange that it should be hard to readapt to your own culture.

Usually, you will return to your home country full of new experiences and feel like a changed person.

Back there, everyone seems to have stayed the same. Or, even worse, everyone has moved on with their lives and changed in a different direction. Whatever it is, you don’t seem to fit in anymore.

As long as you were abroad, you’ve been idealizing your own country. Now you feel disappointed, that this picture isn’t true. This disappointment may even lead you to idealize the former host culture now!

In addition, your children might miss their friends and feel like strangers – without anyone giving them the credit for being so. It may seem weird to new classmates and even teachers, that they don’t know some words of their language or whatever is popular or cool amongst their age group.

This time you may also be grieving because a chapter of your life that you struggled so hard to make work, is now closed and you can’t go back to it.

When we moved back to Germany, one of the hardest things to adapt to for me was the attitude towards children that teachers have here. In the UK, the teachers had been much more encouraging, seeing something unique and positive in every child. Here in Germany, teachers are more focused on what’s still missing or the mistakes the children make. I probably found it much harder than my kids to get used to that again.

What to do

Accept that it takes time.

Try to find old friends and travel to re-discover the beauty of your own country.

Go and see the extended family: You will and your kids will feel that ultimately, you belong here.

But do also try to keep in touch with your German friends – they may have become friends for life!

And… if you are planning to move abroad again, try to make the best of your time!


I hope that knowing about these stages will be as helpful for you as it has been for me.



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