Culture Shock & the Expat Adjustment Curve

Culture Shock

The Oxford Dictionary defines culture shock as: The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

Culture shock can be described by phases of adjustment, including frustration, anger, resentment, and even depression.  Regardless of the expat’s disposition, previous experience abroad, maturity or familiarity with the country in which they will be living, everyone experiences some degree of culture schock. These stages of adjustment can be broken down, much like grieving, into phases that are experienced individually.

The expat curve and culture shock applies to all individuals leaving their home country and starting a new chapter in a foreign country.  As our experience is based on experiences with expats in Berlin we write about these phases, and how they might effect you in the German capital.

Honeymoon Phase

Berlin is beautiful and ugly, definitely exciting, hip, cool, fun, and very intriguing. In the beginning like with anything new (as the name suggests) the differences to home seem minor or even interesting. You feel euphoric, stimulated, enriched and excited and yet still close to everything familiar back home.

Initial Culture Shock

When the honeymoon is over the differences start to have an impact. The experience is no longer new and exciting but those little differences are becoming irritating. The unfriendly Berliner and the dirty streets get on your nerves. You feel confused, isolated, disoriented and experience a loss of energy. Family support systems and friends back home are missed.

Superficial Adjustment

A superficial adjustment takes place, you find ways of coping and functioning, usually within a limited, familiar space, between home, work, the supermarket on the corner and the one cafe across the road. You are familiar with the do’s and don’ts of Berlin, have become accustomed to the values and norms of life the german capital has to offer and find some comfort within your limited safety zone but are afraid to venture further.

Culture Schock

When the real culture shock sets in, you have lost touch with your home culture. You have an awareness of the deep cultural differences. You start to whine about Berlin, you may even develop prejudices towards the city and it’s people, you experience dislike towards the culture and the language. You feel angry and frustrated and start to question the decision to relocate to Berlin. You experience a loss of self-esteem, the loss of the support of family and friends.  You feel threatened and withdrawn. You feel depressed, tense, fatigued, and homesick.  Going back home at this stage would be damaging to the process of integration.

Recovery

This is where acceptance begins, you realise that fighting change and the differences in culture is not going to make the process any easier. You will begin to learn more about the german and Berlin culture and the values, beliefs and systems.  At this phase you will have learnt some German and will engage more with locals. You have made some friends and start to grow your network.  You will now also start making plans for your personal and professional life and get more involved in your commitment to life in Berlin.

Integration

At this stage you will be very accepting of your new life. You have developed coping behaviour and you are less defensive towards Berlin. You adopt what you like or what makes sense to you and adapt. You know “how it works” and start to have a feeling of belonging. You are more openminded and have learned to value the cultural differences. You find a new self confidence. You start to feel like yourself again. You no longer feel so isolated and are able to accept and appreciate your life in Berlin.

Culture Schock and the expat adjustment curve is entirely normal. It is also an unavoidable process. The different phases will be experienced differently and you will travel back and forth between the phases before a successful integration is reached. To avoid a failed integration we accompany you and your family through the adjustment period in Berlin. We observe how you are coping and provide support, guidance and advice. We guide you through the processes, making the adjustment easier on you and your families.  Our support enhances your learning experience so that you reach the ultimate goal of a successful integration.

Here is an informative video about the ups and downs of the expat curve:

Contribution by Emily Archer.

Emily is Managing Director of Archer Relocation.  As your Relocation Consultant she is your first new friend in Berlin. Originally from Australia, Emily lived in Melbourne, Sydney and Barcelona before moving to Munich in 1999.  Emily founded Archer Relocation early 2015 desiring to use her first hand experience and professional skills to assist fellow expats moving to Berlin.  Archer Relocation offers the services you need to make your arrival in Berlin a smooth one, including home search, bureaucracy, immigration, and family assistance.

As of 2018 we are offering a Spouse Support Program designed to recognise both the practical and emotional needs of our clients as we expedite their relocation, assisting and providing support all the way through with particular focus on the settling in period to build a network, reach career goals, learn german and integrate successfully.