Culture shock and how to deal with it


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culture shock

Culture shock and how to deal with it

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.
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