Culture shock – what to expect?

When we talk about “Culture Shock” we actually refer to “Cultural Adaptation” – moving to and living in a new country.

Culture shock is a process of adaptation to a new culture. It is a process, extended over time, and it might be individually varied.

It has some phases which can last different periods of time, depending on the person and their individual experiences. In each phase expats have different thoughts and needs. They face various challenges and expect (or not) help or a special attitude from people around.

Let’s check the stages of this process! We will look not only at what the stage is but also at what the person needs at that moment.


culture shock

Stage 1: Ups & downs (pre-departure)


Everything starts even before going to a new country. Emotional mixture appears when you already know about the upcoming change.

Questions and thoughts person asks: 

  • How is it going to be? Will I manage? 
  • Will they understand me? 
  • I am so excited! 
  • It will be different than here! It will be different than here..

If it’s not really about you, but your colleague is struggling to prepare for the relocation, you can show support and help. Or maybe you are going to meet someone from abroad in your workplace – you also should know what to do.


How to help?

  1. Provide information – prepare a booklet or FAQ site 
  2. Assign a virtual buddy to get their questions answered and make a friendly soul OR become a buddy!
  3. Make an online meeting with the team – both sides will know what to expect
  4. Relate to both professional and life aspects – remember that the change is not only about work
  5. Relocation training might be a good option for the migrant and their family members
  6. Start the onboarding process


Stage 2:  Honeymoon phase


It sounds like: All is so good! 

  • I love it here!
  • It sooo quiet.
  • I feel safe, have missed the feeling…
  • People look good, streets are so clean!
  • Public transport has schedules and trams actually arrive on time!
  • We’ve been greeted so warmly in the school..

It doesn’t mean that everything is and will be perfect forever. This stage also requires some attention and is a perfect time to prepare for what’s next.


How to help?

  1. Use the energy of this phase to make connections, establish relationships, and get to know processes, teams, and places
  2. Build connection by exchanging perspectives, points of view, stories
  3. Touch upon “sensitive” topics like approach to disagreement or conflicts, agree on how you’d possibly like to approach them in the future


Stage 3: Culture shock


A smashing wave. This is the hardest part. 

Person experiences thoughts like:

  • I can’t get my favourite fish here. 
  • I don’t understand what they are saying! 
  • Thought our languages were similar…
  • Some people seem to avoid talking to me. 
  • My education and languages seem to be of little value here… 
  • That neighbour’s dog keeps barking all day long. 
  • They are not as friendly as I had thought. 
  • It’s really hard to make friends and feels very lonely! My kid is bullied at school. I miss home!!!


How to help?

  1. The employee might seem low, incapable, even alien. Recognize that the lower emotional condition is a natural part of the adaptation process.
  2. Be ready to address emotions. Ask: How are you these days? How are you experiencing (country, city, company…) these days? It seems to me you are a bit low – is it so?
  3. Give a helping hand. Involve the buddy who you had assigned before.


If you are a manager or HR: give special attention to inclusion, psychological safety, human centric leadership. Observe and collect challenges to prepare an even better content and/or process for future newcomers.


Stage 4: Adaptation


Getting accustomed and culturally competent.

Person might think:

  • I know what education I can get here, and what’s the best way. 
  • We’ve got one best friend at school. 
  • I know where to do good shopping for us. I know where my kid can spend her summer weeks in a creative way. 
  • I am capable. I have proven that I can manage here.

If your colleague is here don’t forget about them.


How to help?

  1. Watch progress, keep offering a helping hand.
  2. Ask the (not so new)comer to become a buddy to next internationals joining the company.


Now you should be prepared for the experience of cultural shock in yours or your colleagues’ life. 

Good luck!


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Photo by Debashis RC Biswas on Unsplash