Culture Shock is simply a process of learning how to manage in a new environment that is significantly different to the one you have come from. It is a normal, psychological, emotional and as a result spiritual experience that people go through. It affects the most seasoned executives and is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of.
Culture Shock occurs when three main drivers are triggered
Driver 1: The inability to explain the behavior of others
An executive moves from their home country to another country. In their home country they have figured out people, to some extent they can even predict how people will behave and they feel comfortable and accepting of other people’s behavior. They have learned to live successfully in that context, but when they move to a new country, they find themselves in a new context and the behavior of others doesn’t make sense anymore.
The confusion can be caused by a relatively small change. Let me give you an example. In some countries you say yes by moving your head up and down along the vertical line, but in other countries you say yes by shaking your head from left to right on the horizontal line. It’s a small difference, but not knowing this can be profoundly confusing.
Driver 2: Your behavior doesn't generate the results you expect
Direct communicators finding themselves in Indirect Communication led cultures is a good example of this. If you are used being very direct in your communication, you will be quick to say what you like, don’t like or think is wrong. But in Indirect Communication led cultures this can be very upsetting to people, even rude and unprofessional, as they believe relationships are not important for you. Your behavior does not get you the results you seek as they may “hide” information, ignore your questions or be deliberately unhelpful to you as a result of your direct approach.
Driver 3: Your environment puts demands on you that you are not prepared or willing to meet
Things will invariably work and be different in another country. How you get your washing machine fixed, how you get a driving license, the driving habits of others, where you buy your groceries, how the retail and purchasing infrastructure is set up, access to everyday items that are seen as luxuries in the country you move to. These are just a few out of work examples that can be hugely frustrating as you have to relearn how to shop, bank, get your children into school, get to work etc. At work itself it can be as simple as the type of reporting that’s required for your new job and how the company is structured. It will be different, it may not make sense or seem the best way to you and it will put demands on you that you are not willing or able to meet.
The honeymoon period
To understand Culture Shock fully you need to understand that it doesn't happen instantly on arrival. Culture Shock is driven by negative, frustrating experiences outweighing positive experiences. Typically one negative experience will be neutralized by about five positive experiences. When a driver is triggered you are put off balance and when too many of those negative drivers happen in a day, you can easily move into culture shock.
Left unmanaged Culture Shock quickly becomes a psychological, emotional, spiritual and even physical experience. It connects at the emotion level and like a virus spreads into your thinking making you uncertain and nervous, even fearful.
Concentrated periods of this lead to physical illness and can affect people spiritually. Employees become unfocused; act oddly, then becomes ill and eventually seek an alternative post. The cost to the company is significant, not only in lost productivity that can reach 30-40% but also in recruitment and relocation costs.
The good news is that there are ways to help people dealing with Culture Shock by running Transition Management Programs where you teach people the principles behind transitioning well, especially from and Inter-Cultural perspective.
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