Culture Shock: from the inside out

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Expats often underestimate the challenges of culture shock, and even those who’ve mastered adaptation are often unprepared for the adjustment the expat bubble itself demands.

A glazed stare, withdrawal, excessive sleep, overeating, under-eating – these aren’t side effects of some ill-fated psychosis, but believe it or not, symptoms of culture shock.

Sure, not every expat assumes zombie status post-arrival in the their new location, and each may find different degrees of homesickness and feelings of helplessness defining their transitions, but ultimately, this hurdle to adjustment is often much higher than most anticipate.

In fact, results from the 2010 Expat Arrivals (EA) Art of Relocation Survey showed that when participants were asked just what factor they’d “wished they’d known more about” in hindsight of their move, the biggest proportion cited “Overcoming Culture Shock” (46.7%). Five other factors, ranging from “Arranging a Visa/Work Permit” (24%) to “Education and Schools” (13.3%) received considerably less attention.

Rightfully so, the shock of moving to a new country can cause immense anxiety and frustration. Depending on just how different a new location is day-to-day experiences, simple tasks and normally low-maintenance logistics can be clouded in confusion and consternation.

What’s more, even though loss of routine and general disorientation can certainly be dizzying realities that often leave expats spinning, challenges created by an external environment aren’t the only source of culture shock.

Life inside the bubble

For many western expats, life in even the strangest of destinations can be lived in a self-contained sphere of cultural familiarity. It happens most commonly when foreigners perceive an uncrossable cultural barrier formed by complex language or religious structures – and in response, create isolated expat communities to regain a sense of control over their cultural environment.

“In terms of an insular expat destination, there is almost a palpable separation between yourself and the culture that you will NEVER traverse,” explains Kulturetolk intercultural trainer and consultant Anna Maria Moore. “There is a strong feeling of them versus us.”

These expat bubbles are commonly represented by physical space – expat compounds in Saudi Arabia, homats in Japan, or secure, gated communities in Nigeria. It follows that these shared spaces then act as a platform for a social subculture; a place where expats search for the lowest common denominator and form friendships accordingly.

“If you are lucky, or make a VERY large effort, you will meet and make friends with a few Japanese nationals; but for the most part, expats in Japan tend to surround themselves with other expats,” explains American transplant Lisa Jardine. “It makes an incredibly large city feel much smaller – sometimes too small.”

Subculture shock

In destinations where insular expat communities are the norm, the effect is a close, tight-knit network. Most social interaction is within the group, most expat families send their children to expat schools and, in some cases where the subculture is especially strong, the community takes the place of family.

“When you can’t read, write or speak the language of the country you live in, you are limited to how much you can move outside those confines,” asserts Jardine.

Though this system can be supportive at first, it can also become potentially poisonous.

“In Thailand and Nigeria we lived behind bars, gates and locked doors with guards 24 hours a day. This instils a sense of caution and fear and reinforces that “otherness”,” said Moore

In a sense, intensely insular expat communities can transform into “golden ghettoes”. Feelings of insecurity and notions of being completely removed from the world in which you live may be more apparent than ever before.

Unlike immigrant societies, which are “secluded”, expatriate communities are “exclusive,” writes Eric Cohen in “Current Sociology”, in that they close off or exclude an authentic experience of local life and its people.

This disconnectedness can begin to feel deliberate, even if it isn’t; guilt can get the better of even the most stubborn expat, particularly when so much affluence resides inside the compound walls relative to the standards of living outside.

Furthermore, interactions within the bubble can become blasé, and expats may come away feeling their environment has turned too one-dimensional. In some extreme instances, there are those that  would describe their relocation as a period in time in which they felt trapped.

Bursting the bubble

As culture transition strategist Heather Markel explains, there are plenty of simple steps expats can take to start waging war with standard culture shock: research, learning the local language, and hiring an expat coach.

But when it comes to digging in and doing battle with the kind of culture shock that comes from these insular expat communities, an alternative approach is often needed to come away successful.

Beyond all else expats should do their best to solidify at least one empathetic relationship outside of the bubble’s base camp. Allies are essential, both for business and personal relationships.

Moore recommends:

•            staying updated on current events so you can speak intelligently with locals
•            showing curiosity, interest and allowing locals to express their opinions
•            continuing to learn the language, no matter the sacrifice it requires
•            be willing to meet and mix with locals in even in the most basic of situations

Pushing yourself to sustain a social connection outside of the expat bubble will not only give you a breath of fresh air, it can also provide valuable insight into the interworkings of your destination.

According to the EA Art of Relocation Survey, participants cited “Local People” (70%) as the most helpful resource in making a successful relocation; even trumping the percentage of expats who found “Personal Contacts Within the Expat Community” to be helpful.

Often expats entering into an insular community have little choice upon initial arrival, but finding little outlets and making sure that you don’t feel boxed in and boarded up can be the difference in overcoming culture shock or sinking completely.

About the Author: Stephanie Katz is the editor of, a site that publishes over 100 online destination guides to help global expats plan their move abroad and optimize their lives on arrival. City-based experts works with the editorial team to produce constantly updated information covering 15 main content areas of significance to expats, inter alia, Accommodation, Money & Banking, Culture Shock, Healthcare, Education, Lifestyle, and Visas.

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