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Culture Shock


Cultural Differences

Most expats inadvertently break some cultural taboos when they first go to live in a different country, even those countries which are on the surface very similar to their own. For example, the price of someone’s house is a sensitive topic in some parts of America, while this is a topic of normal everyday conversation in the UK.

In most cases, you are likely to find that the locals will understand your lack of familiarity with their customs and will brush off your question good-naturedly, or explain their discomfort. In some countries, however, especially those where there are strong religious or cultural taboos, it may be easy to cause offence or to upset someone with a culturally insensitive remark or action.

If you are going to live in a Muslim country it is important to remember that Muslims do not eat pork or drink alcohol, that they only consume food considered to be “halal” (prepared in the manner prescribed by Islamic law), and that they fast during daylight hours during the month of Ramadan, a period when it might be insensitive to eat in front of Muslim friends or co-workers.

In Asian countries such as China, the concept of guanxi is very important in both social and business interactions. This refers to a relationship established over time in which there are mutual obligations and owed favours between the parties concerned. Respect is also very important in China and it is considered particularly important to show respect for seniors, guests and people with whom you have a guanxi relationship. Respect is often demonstrated as extreme politeness, which can be seen as overly formal by westerners. “Losing face” is a source of shame in many Asian societies so it is very important that you do not cause someone to lose face when dealing with them in business or personal life.

Western expatriates are sometimes disconcerted by some habits and customs which are prevalent in China and some other Asian countries such as spitting, openly staring at a foreigner, and failing to observe the usual western courtesy of queuing. The concept of personal space is also virtually unheard of in some eastern societies, with people moving closer to others than would be normal in western society. More generally, the meanings of different types of body language and particularly methods of signalling with the hands also vary considerably between cultures, and it is wise to seek advice from local or expat friends about the most important differences so that you do not inadvertently cause offence, for example, by using what is considered to be a rude gesture.

In Islamic societies, particularly those of the Middle East, it is very important to observe religious sensitivities about dress. Depending on the country concerned, women may be required to cover up most of their bodies, while men should also dress modestly. In particularly strict Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, women are expected to wear a black abaya and to cover their hair when in public. They may also not be allowed to drive or travel alone.

Less sensitive but nonetheless important is the need to find out whether such practices as tipping and haggling over prices are in common use in your new society.

Managing Stress

The stress and anxiety associated with relocating can often be so profound and long-lasting that there is even a term for it: Relocation Stress Syndrome (RSS). RSS refers to the negative effect on someone’s body and mind as a result of changing environmental factors. In some severe cases it may even be considered as traumatic as bereavement.

Moving to another country is always a major upheaval and should be recognised as such at an early stage. Factors that cause relocation stress then need to be identified so that they can be addressed as and when they arise. It is also important to remember that relocation stress can occur not just in people who are against the move or inherently unhappy with it but also in people who welcome the move and may, in fact, have been its initiators. For most people though, relocating is an opportunity which leads to many positive and life-enriching experiences if they embrace it.

Some signs of relocation stress are tension headaches, depression, insomnia, a weakened immune system, backaches, high blood pressure and panic attacks (needless to say these may also be symptoms of other conditions and should they persist the advice of a medical professional is advised).

Here are some suggestions for reducing relocation stress during your move abroad:

· Make prioritized lists. Making to-do lists will help you get your thoughts in order but making haphazard lists will not work - your lists must be organized in terms of relevance and importance.

· Set tasks into manageable chunks. Divide and delegate as many activities as possible so that the onus of the move is not all on you. Give people tasks to accomplish suited to their expertise and temperament. For example, give your children a chance to pack their own music collection and divide up selling, packing and researching tasks with your spouse and other family members.

· Plan ahead but when the best laid plans go awry - as they inevitably will at some stage - don’t panic. Have contingency plans in place so when the first one fails you can always revert to Plan B (or C or D!)

· Say your goodbyes but don’t drag things out longer than necessary, it is important for your emotional well-being to have “closure”. Understand that you are ending one chapter in your life so that you can be ready for the next one to begin.

· Banish fear of the unknown by thoroughly researching your new destination with every information source available.

· Establish routines for everyday life. Routines add predictability and help stabilize emotions. Put up a schedule on the fridge or tack it up on a wall if that helps the whole family to have a focal point for the week’s activities.

· Identify your (and your family’s) goals. Goals give you a sense of purpose, and when accomplished, a sense of achievement. Setting realistic goals is paramount to fulfilling them and feeling relatively stress-free.

· Ask yourself what relocation will achieve and whether it is really worth it. Consider the financial and emotional costs of moving versus the benefits. If enriching your lives with diverse cultural experiences is a goal, then relocation may make good sense. If you are a rigid person or family who typically does not deal well with change then you might have a harder time adjusting emotionally to the move.

· Relocation can be a challenge for the accompanying family, especially when their primary needs or desires are not being met. For example, a spouse’s career goals might have to be put on hold which may lead to a build up of resentment in the marriage. In such cases the accompanying spouse may decide (or be encouraged) to look for alternative opportunities such as freelancing, volunteering, taking language courses, indulging hobbies, forming support groups, etc.

· Help children identify new goals such as learning a new language.

· Identify whether your move will be a short-term or a long-term one. Will you be burning your boats back home or keeping old ties? Will you relinquish citizenship or opt for dual nationality? Knowing the answers will help you understand your long term goals and objectives.

· Meditation. Meditation need not be a complex undertaking. It can be as simple as tuning out the world for a few minutes and concentrating on something that evokes feelings of happiness or contentment in you.

· Exercise. In addition to the long term health benefits, sometimes you just need to get rid of all that excess energy and frustration building up inside you and a good workout provides just that. Exercise also releases endorphins into your body which can help you feel more positive and cheerful.

· Relaxation. Find other ways to relax during this stressful time by indulging in a favourite hobby, socialising with new friends, booking a massage or spa treatment, treating yourself to a gift, going for a long walk in the country, catching up on sleep, spending more (or less!) time with your family or any other activity that will help to relieve some of the stress that tends to accumulate when relocating.

· Cut yourself some slack. It’s OK to feel lost, disappointed, homesick, scared and lonely. Acknowledging these feelings (instead of feeling guilty about them) will help you to start focusing on the positives that much sooner.

· Stop comparing and move on. If you’re forever thinking that your old house was so much more spacious or that your old neighborhood had so many more trees, you’ll never realize the positives of your new destination – and there may be many positives, you just have to stop and look for them.

· Encourage children to talk about their feelings. Children often have similar tensions and anxieties regarding a move and one of the best things you can do is to encourage them to discuss their fears; only then can fears and misunderstandings be addressed and optimism given a chance to take root.


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