Being an expatriate is not easy, but moving to another country, learning a new language and living in a different culture can be very exciting and is often a career jump too. Nevertheless, it helps if you know a bit about the challenges you might face in advance. One of these challenges is culture shock. Defined as the disorientation a person may experience in a new cultural or foreign environment it can lead to information overload, homesickness, a language barrier and loneliness. When employees are sent on foreign assignment their families often accompany them. They too, will be affected by the new environment and need the same, if not more support, to acclimatize.
So what can you do in advance?
To identify if an employee is suitable for xpatriation some companies have the employee and or partner evaluated to see if their personal cultural profiles will be a good “fit” for the target culture. This process then enables cultural awareness training to be tailored specifically for the foreign assignment. It also helps if language training is given – especially to the partners who may face isolation in the new environment and be unable to communicate.
When in the new country and once the relocation service has completed its assignment, most expats are left to deal with seemingly daunting tasks and they may feel helpless (partners and children are the most strongly affected). It could be something as small as ordering oil for the heating system, opening a bank account or finding a family doctor, but in foreign countries there are other rules to go by. A language trainer specialized in expatriate support is often a good solution - especially for the first 12 months. They will know how and where to help you – not only practically, but also to develop your new language skills so you can form friendships and communicate easily with the locals.
Learning the language also means learning to communicate in new ways. Perhaps your culture is one where speaking about an issue directly and getting a decision rapidly is common. There will be confusion and conflict if you use this approach in a country where collective decision making is important – which takes time, or issues are approached indirectly to save “face” and not embarrass the other person. Being aware of differences between your own culture and your new one is helpful to work out what is happening. The internet, friends, new colleagues and other expatriates are good sources of knowledge to find out how to understand and operate in your new environment.
Finally, actively look for ways to explore and have fun in your new home. Bring things that are familiar to you, e.g. photos. It is nice to be surrounded by your friends and family each day. Recognize the stresses as they occur. It is easy to stay focused on work and let tension build - remember that the divorce rate for expats doubles! The expat community is an enjoyable and friendly one, but breaking the barriers with people from other cultures is the real way to learn. Keep this in mind. Take time to travel and participate in local community events. This helps you to understand the culture, as well as giving you a break from normal expat stress. So, reach out to your new country with pleasure, be ready to change and to profit from your newly acquired survival skills.