culture shock

Culture shock and how to deal with it

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Culture shock is a common experience for many who move abroad, even between European countries. How can you deal with the shock of integrating into a new culture?

Despite the so-called union of European nations, huge cultural gaps exist between people working in this continent. For some expats, these gaps can grow into chasms.

In the past, events have focused the world's attention on the extreme kinds of cultural clashes that can occur between people from different sides of the world. But culture shock also occurs within Europe, even among Europeans that live in neighbouring countries  – all the time, in fact.

"Total culture shock!" is how Mike Cantelo, a 33-year-old British engineer, describes his own experience of working in France.

Dangers of culture shock

Unfortunately, experts say, European companies neglect to train employees to deal with this shock because they figure, hey, it's not a problem. But it really is one, one that can hamper a company's development, they say.

"In Europe, people are neighbours. They kind of look the same, it's not far to travel and 'I have been there on vacation and so it's no big deal,'" says Sabine Amend, a 35-year-old German cross-cultural trainer who lived in Britain for six years. "But working in a culture is a hugely different thing."

The answers, the experts say, include experience, cultural training and self-awareness.

The symptoms

But what is typical culture shock – of the nonviolent kind – really, anyway? Basically, it occurs when people discover that their way of doing things doesn't work. What once were habits become an overwhelming number of decisions, says Stephen Rhinesmith, a transatlantic executive coach who specialises in global emotional intelligence.

The symptoms: You get frustrated, irritable, fatigued, anxious and depressed. You can't cope. You withdraw, often oversleep to escape, and turn aggressive against the host culture, Rhinesmith says.

Elisabeth Marx, who works for the executive recruiters Norman Broadbent in London and has written a book on culture shock, describes the result this way: "People start saying 'Why are the French and Germans like that?' You start having scapegoat scenarios. 'I hate Nation X!' End of conversation. End of development. And people maintain their point of view," which is that their way of doing things is the better one.

North and south culture shock

The experts say there are helpful ways of breaking all that frustration down. One thing to keep in mind is that European cultures can be divided into two main categories, Rhinesmith says.

The Anglophone, Germanic, Dutch and Scandinavian countries tend to look at other cultures in a more judgmental fashion. They are known as 'universalistic'. 'Particularistic' cultures-including France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece-defend their own way of life with a my-group-versus-your-group mentality.

Marx stresses that a big source of friction is a differing sense of time. "It drives someone else mad," she says. German and Anglophone business people are sequential planners, she says. And they see punctuality as a sign of respect. The Latin cultures juggle a variety of tasks simultaneously and tackle them at their own pace without a discernible pattern.

Humour is another sticking point, she says. The English like to use it to break the ice. That backfires in Germany where jokes in meetings are considered shallow, Marx says.

More specifically, Germans sometimes are perceived to be inflexible perfectionists who are schedule-driven rather than solution-minded, she says. But they are also perceived to be people of their word and thus trustworthy partners. 

The French sometimes are perceived to over-elaborate, to engage in lengthy hypothetical discussions. They often appear to have no action plan and arrive at no conclusion, she says. But they are also perceived to be super-flexible and great improvisers. Indeed, Cantelo, an engineer who worked for Peugeot in France and now is at Aston Martin in Britain, says that he was taken aback by the unstructured nature of French meetings, often held without an agenda. He was also surprised by the formal tone of communication, both oral and written.

"I saw a number of people getting dressed down for not addressing their superiors properly," Cantelo said.

The British sometimes are perceived to speak in their own code, Marx says. Their subtleties can be lost even on fluent English speakers from other countries. Misunderstandings occur when instead of saying 'no' directly, they say something like, "That is an interesting idea." This bewilders literal-minded Germans, Marx says. But the British are perceived to be excellent at working out ambiguous and complicated situations.

How does your culture compare?

Dutch social psychologist Professor Geert Hofstede did a pioneering study of modern nations to quantify in general terms different levels of cultural values and how these affect cultural behaviour. Hofstede's research and the research of his colleagues delve deep into national and organisational culture, offering a general guideline on how different cultures can be expected to act in social and work environments. His cultural tools allows users to compare the cultural values of different countries, which can help increase your effectiveness when dealing with a new culture.

How to adapt

In a multicultural work environment, previous experience counts for a lot, Rhinesmith says. It helps people to quickly adapt, developing a method of functioning that is effective, he says. So does the right mindset, which includes an openness to new things and an appreciation of cultural differences, the experts say.

Also important are not just language training but also cross-cultural coaching during which employees hone their interpersonal skills by role-playing with people from other cultures. For example, Italians, who can be extroverted, can benefit from practising interacting with the generally more reserved Norwegians, Rhinesmith says.

And self-awareness is key, Marx says.

Every time you wade into an international encounter you should remember that the norms are going to be different. And you should take that into account, she says. Even within Europe.

Cotten Timberlake / Expatica

Cotten Timberlake is a special correspondent to and the Wall Street Journal.

Updated 2014.


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3 Comments To This Article

  • ian posted:

    on 7th August 2008, 12:59:21 - Reply

    i think the author has mixed up 'universalistic' and 'particularistic'. France is the home of universalism, which is linked to egalitarianism and enlightenment ideals of civilisation. Germanic countries and northern Europe are particularistic, accentuating difference accross peoples..
  • Stephanie posted:

    on 7th August 2008, 12:32:41 - Reply

    I am in Netherlands for about 4 years and my beggining here was difficult. I am from Canada.My first job here to start was in a call center. Marvellous I thought!... I got really depress quickly. I was sitting with the french team and my "Mentor" was a guy from France his style was weird but I said to myself that he is performant and accept the culture changed. Not long time after my training i asked him a question, he said to come back later because he went out last night (with almost closed red eyes). After a while a complaint to the top manager and he bring him into the office to have a talk.I was never expected a reason like this, The mentor said, Welcome to Europe you are not in Canada :S eh, if you answer this in Canada you are kicked out. In that office Scandinavian people were walking on theirs socks and that was fine !!!! Eh Cultural ??? I quit the job and found something in the total opposite way for a American company thinking that I would fit better there.....
    NO!!! People were so fake and pretend to be smily everyday and the Supervisor always saying "Keep positive guys!" " We can make it" positive is fine but there is some limits. So I found now a good job where I fit.

    I am actually working as a Service Ressources Coordinator. I have interaction with Italian, Spanish, English, Dutch and Germans. I think I have reached another level because the etiquette in this office is much better. People wear clean clothes, no dreads, no grunch, no blue hair. People respect each other whitout exagerating on the politeness.

    In conclustion I think everyone has their place, you only have to find where you fit.

    Good luck for the new expat!


  • Expat coach posted:

    on 7th August 2008, 12:31:22 - Reply

    [Edited by moderator] Culture shock happens to all - no matter which country or which region of the same country they live in. It is a natural change / grieving process (Kubler Ross etc). Individuals can become stuck in position if they are not given support during the process. Another point to understand in this psychology is based on scientific experiments conducted (some years ago) with animals - rats and monkeys for example, to understand "natural physiological and neurological effects" to change and the capacity to cope, accept or fear it. For instance, rats were given small electrical shocks when they ventured outside of their normal area of cage. They quickly learnt to not move from the "safe" area. Same with chimpanzees: several were in a cage and a banana was dangled from the top - they went to get the banana, even though one got it all received a shock. A new chimpanzee was introduced to the cage after several days of this treatment. The others had learnt not to go for the banana. The new one did not know this culturally information and of course went for the banana ensuring the others received a shock. He was of course punished by the rest of the group. Why do I write of these experiments - assimilation, adoption of cultural norms, information to understand what's happening, stepping beyond learned behaviour knowing one will get hurt - this is often the cycle that an expatriate will find themselves in. I don't have the answers, there is a range of solutions and support systems but I predict no full answer as individuals are different to each other no matter what background, circumstances, and therefore there is no one answer and no one response to culture shock. There are english and other nationalities expats who are thriving here and integrated. However, there are others who don't and find it difficult to do so. I also am aware that local cultures aren't often prepared to support an immigrant of what ever status during the time of their assimilation - support such as time, sympathy/ empathy, respect, learning from each other and enabling/ facilitating communication and learning in any language. I know in my home country prior to any of my moves, would I have gone out of my way to help an expat who had arrived to live in my neighbourhood - I doubt it, I had my own life to lead. That is part of the learning for all of us. Put yourself in each others shoes and appreciate each others frustrations, respect and learn and share information and support.