Living abroad is a cherished dream held by many. Discovering a new culture can be exciting. But moving abroad also comes with its set of challenges. One of these is culture shock. It can take a while to become familiar with a completely new way of living that is starkly different to our own.We may have to deal with our host culture’s stereotypes about us. We may also have to come to grips with our own stereotypes or prejudices that can get in the way of acclimatizing to a new country and lifestyle. For instance, we must know that not everyone in a host country is going to behave in the same manner. In dealing with the matter of prejudices, we must also be aware of how cultural adjustment takes place.
Stages of cultural adjustment
There are four common stages of cultural adjustment.
In the honeymoon stage, there is initial excitement and expats may feel that they will be able to handle everything. They may feel excited about their environment and often display a tourist-like involvement in the new culture. There is also intrigue about the similarities and differences between the host culture and that of their home country’s culture. There is likely to be great interest, open mindedness and motivation to learn more about the home country.
Next comes the stage of culture shock, where irritability rises. The novelty has now worn off, and expats may start to notice the differences between their home culture and the new culture. This is the stage when stereotypes and prejudices crop up. Minor problems can seem like catastrophes and stress levels rise. Expats may feel frustrated and helpless, and may become homesick.
In the stage of gradual adjustment, expats may gain a different perspective and tend to discover humor in their situation. This is the stage when they decide to make the most of the experience. They develop more familiarity with the host culture and begin to understand its values. There may be highs and lows as adjustment progresses. Expats will discover that they enjoy certain parts of the host culture more than those of their home culture. A sense of humor returns and they begin to question their previous stereotypes and prejudices.
The fourth stage is a sense of ‘feeling at home’. Expats can now appreciate specific aspects of the new culture, and at the same time be critical of other aspects. They begin to feel comfortable and at home, and are no longer frustrated by the difference in the two cultures. They are able to make the most of their life and work, and can now realize their full potential.
Expats often take important measures to ensure that their life in a new country is as comfortable as possible. This may include learning a foreign language or researching the new culture. But as with most things in life, there are situations where their expectations are not fulfilled. It could be things like your flight getting delayed or losing your baggage. You may also feel that your new house is not on par with what you are used to, and that your commute to work takes longer than expected. You may want to spend time exploring the city, but your work keeps you busy for most of the time.
Some expats who have made it a point to study the local language may find that the locals don’t seem to understand them, and end up speaking to them in English instead. Work may also feel unstructured in the initial days. For many, being unable to make friends as easily as they expected may become a source of disappointment, and can also be a trigger for homesickness. It is important to regard these issues as learning experiences. Avoid the urge to paint the entire country or culture with the same brush as this leads to generalizations and stereotypes.
Symptoms of cultural stress
Cultural stress can take its toll in the form of several physical and psychological symptoms. Small health problems may flare up. Tiredness, exhaustion and appetite changes may occur. This is also the time when one may start craving things from home such as certain foods or amenities.
Homesickness may worsen, and social interaction may become restricted to non-locals. Expats may develop a superior attitude towards the locals and may also take to complaining and critiquing everything. There could be anger and depression, and feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Dealing with cultural stress
It is natural to feel frustrated and stressed out when living in a foreign country and being exposed to a new culture. Some of the strategies of dealing with such feelings include the following.
• Stay in touch: When abroad, it is important to stay in touch with family and friends back home. But is also necessary to manage expectations about how often you can contact them. Arranging a schedule for keeping in touch is a good strategy to keep isolation and loneliness at bay.
• Understand cultural adjustment and its stages.
• Examine your situation and watch your reactions.
• Identify the triggers of stress.
• Try to think positively.
• Identify your support systems, such as family and friends back home or colleagues at your new workplace, and understand the types of support they can offer.
• Seek out groups that share your interests.
• Take care of your physical health and get adequate rest.
Here are some of the strategies that may be effective in reducing prejudice and improving relations.
Prejudices are pre-conceived judgments about other people’s cultural practices, habits, speaking manner and values. Often these judgments are not based on anything other than the fact that they are different from our own.
It is important to understand that what we recognize as truth or reality is actually different across varied cultures. When we are only exposed to one culture, it becomes difficult to understand that our way is not the only way.
Travelling helps to increase the recognition that other people have different ways of doing things, and when you step into a new culture, you become the one with a different way of life, not them. Reading up as much as you can on different cultures or your host culture is also effective in bringing to light any prejudices you may have.
Each of us needs to be introspective about our deeply rooted prejudices and biases in order to challenge these negative attitudes that have become entrenched in our behaviors. When it comes to prejudice and stigma, the more you know about them, the better.
It may be a good idea to take a course on prejudice, which will help to examine your own unconscious biases and how prejudices occur due to ways of thinking that are beyond our awareness.
A clearer understanding of the occurrence of unconscious biases can help make you aware of your own biases, thus giving you the opportunity to address them. Also, if you yourself are the target of some prejudice, the knowledge of how stereotypes affect us can help you understand your own emotions.
Studies have shown that those who take a course or attend a seminar on prejudice showed marked reductions in their conscious and unconscious prejudice levels. This reinforces the notion that biases can change, and knowing more about them provides the motivation necessary to make changes ourselves.
Research suggests that when we see people from ‘other’ groups, the amygdala – an almond-shaped part of the brain – lights up. The amygdala is known to trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response, which is a threat response. This may be misinterpreted to mean that our biases are hard-wired.
But in one study, participants were induced into smiling by holding a pencil in their mouth. They were then shown a set of black and white faces. The participants were then given a test of racial attitudes. The results showed that they showed less implicit bias on the test, thus suggesting that smiling and laughter can positively impact the way in which we perceive people.
Acknowledge your prejudices
Change can only begin once you acknowledge that you have prejudices about other people. After acknowledging this, the prejudicial beliefs can be discussed openly and handled in a manner that brings about change.
Confront your prejudices without guilt or blame
Feeling guilty about learning prejudicial information does little good, as it might have been impossible to prevent oneself from learning to think this way. Prejudices are deeply ingrained. Dwelling on guilt or blame takes the focus away from the need for change.
Pay attention to self-talk
When you become aware of your inner dialogue about other groups of people, you will be able to help in the process of changing deeply rooted stereotypical thinking.
Challenge irrational biases
A lot of the time, our prejudicial thoughts have no rational basis. Generalized thinking about groups of people is mostly untrue. Take a closer look at these thoughts, and you will see that they fall apart quickly upon examination.
Increase your exposure
Misconceptions occur when you have don’t have much contact with other groups of people. Increasing your contact with these groups helps to dismantle stereotypical thoughts. However, make sure that your contact is not done in a way that affirms stereotypes.
A good way to build the right kind of contact is to ask the question, ‘is this the way in which I want another to behave who desires to know about people of my race, nationality or culture?’ The diversity that exists within each group is an important factor to keep in mind.
Feel good about yourself
Feeling good about yourself is important in being able to accept other groups of people. When you have a strong sense of self, you feel secure enough to critique yourself, and to accept similar feedback from others. People who find it difficult to receive critical feedback often project blame onto others in the form of prejudices.
Another great way to accept others is to develop empathy skills. When you can empathize with others, there is a higher level of tolerance. Empathy is closely related to acceptance of people different from ourselves.
Develop your listening skills
Learning how to listen well helps you develop an appreciation of others. Listening is a skill that is easily learnt, and one that is important in our fast-paced world of limited attention spans.
Our world has much diversity in terms of the human population and within nature itself. In recognizing such diversity, we build our strength as a species. Our ways of behavior and speaking must also value diversity.
This is not restricted to racial or cultural diversity only; there must also be diversity in thought and the ways in which we solve problems.
Responding to prejudicial behavior
When we hear negative terms about groups of people, it is important to respond in the appropriate manner. It helps us become aware of what we stand for, and enables others to know us too.
Static terms or labels for groups of people require a response that indicates that they are offensive or inappropriate. A response is required when certain jokes or name-calling is at the expense of a certain group of people.
Hold yourself accountable
Prejudices prevent you from thinking beyond your assumptions and hamper objective thinking. The implicit and explicit attitudes towards certain races or cultures indicate how friendly you will be toward them. Once you acknowledge your prejudices, take an active role in replacing them with more reasonable alternatives.
When you think a stereotypical thought about a gender, race, religion or culture, it is helpful to remind yourself that this is a prejudice and an over-generalization.
Do you have any tips for dealing with internalised prejudice? Share your thoughts in the comments below!