Finding Your Feet – Cultural Adjustment

For many, coming to live in Madrid from an English-speaking country, can be a daunting prospect – and adapting to a new culture and different language presents many newcomers with real challenges. The Madrid Metropolitan talks to long term resident and English language therapist Chris Neil about the science behind it.

Adapting to a different culture can at times be a slow and difficult process, leaving behind support networks such as families and friends can often leave globetrotters vulnerable to psychological problems such as anxiety and depression. There is no specific known cause for difficulty in adapting to a new culture and may be influenced by personal characteristics and may include themes such as: The reasons for moving to another country, overstress resulting from the accumulation of adjustment demands, feeling of loss resulting from the detachment from familiar surroundings, feeling of rejection by members of the host culture, uncertainty regarding one’s own identity and role, overwhelmed regarding the dimension of differences and helplessness because of missed possibilities.
Change, although at times painful is often an opportunity to grow as we are pushed outside of our comfort zone. As the saying goes, “ships are safest in the harbour, but that’s not what ships are for”. Being forewarned about the processes of cultural adjustment can help us to understand what we may be going through and go some way in explaining any difficulties we may be experiencing.
One of the best known theoretical models to describe the process of cultural adjustment is that of anthropologist Kalervo Oberg. In 1960 he published “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments”, where he outlined a four stage cultural adjustment model, also known as the U-curve model.

Stage 1: The honeymoon
In this stage immigrants are excited about the prospect of change. The unfamiliarity of everything is a novelty, minor setbacks are ignored and cultural differences are seen as charming quirks. In this stage, people tend to be curious, willing to learn, accepting and open minded.

Stage 2: Crisis or culture shock
In this stage the proverbial bucket of cold water is thrown on any idealised concepts we may have towards the host culture. As daily monotony sets in, one becomes aware of difficulties imposed by the language barrier. Calling a plumber can become a major linguistic problem as we have to find new resources other than relying on good old Yellow Pages. The things that we first found charming about the host culture become annoying and unbelievably complicated and we can start to feel frustrated and misunderstood. This can lead to a lack of self esteem, loneliness and homesickness. At this stage it is usual to disproportionately value all things related to the country of origin and to totally reject things from the host country.
This is a key moment for any cultural adjustment and one that everyone usually goes through. In this phase it is essential to find people in the same situation, try and connect with ex-pat social clubs, participate in sporting or cultural activities, read newspapers in your native language and generally get involved. This will help to realise that any insecurity that you may feel are due to your present social context and nothing to do with you as a person. Remember, this phase will pass if you stick it out.

Stage 3: Adjustment
Things now begin to seem familiar, the route to work, how to manage the underground system, you may even have a favourite bar where you have breakfast in the morning. You may once again begin to appreciate things about your new country, the weather, the countryside etc… Of course it won’t all be roses in this stage and one of its characteristics is an ambivalent love hate relationship with the host culture. This is a turning point where we begin to understand better both the language and the culture and can begin to accept without having to make comparisons with how we remember our country of origin. There may now be greater interaction as day to day activities increasingly involve people of the host culture, thus reducing the “us- them” dichotomy. If you are at this stage you have come a long way and are well on your way to integrating into the host culture. This is a good moment to fine tune your language skills and to participate in culturally diverse activities.

Stage 4: Mastery
This is the stage where we become completely at home in our new environment, but at the same time recognising our own cultural differences. We can accept other cultures without the need to judge. We feel comfortable with who we are and what our culture is, but also recognise that our new culture makes us all that richer as people.  We don’t loose our original culture and become our new culture, but begin to negotiate from a third position or a “third space” according to (Homi Bhabha 1990), where we accept our cultural differences and feel comfortable with ourselves and our place in our new environment. Here we realise that it’s not about being right or wrong and this gives us the gift of choice; we can choose what new things we wish to take onboard and what we wish to retain, without worrying about loosing our sense of identity.

These stages should not be thought of as lineal but more circular, life has the habit of getting in the way of our best laid plans and emergencies or crisis can send us from stage 4: Mastery, straight back to stage 2: Crisis/ Culture shock. But forewarned with this knowledge we will be better placed to cope with it.

Schneider and Barsoux (2003, p.190) identified the following main competencies considered crucial for cultural adjustment:

Linguistic ability: helps establish contact especially “bits of conversational currency” (local expressions, information, and interests).

Motivation to live abroad (cultural curiosity): key ingredient to a successful adaption of expatriates and their families, genuine interest in other cultures and new experiences.

Tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity: circumstances change unexpectedly, behaviour and reactions of local people  can be unpredictable, acknowledging that uncertainty and ambiguity exist (not everything is straight forward).

Patience and respect: respect towards the new culture without benchmarking it against the home culture, instead trying to understand local reasons for the way things happen.

Cultural empathy: appreciating thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others, focused listening and a non-judgemental approach.

Strong sense of self (or ego strength): a healthy narcissism necessary to allow inter-action with another culture without fear of losing one’s own identity, enabling the expatriate to be self-critical and open to feedback.

Sense of humour: important as a coping mechanism and for relationship building, and to buffer frustration, uncertainty and confusion.

Contact details: Chris Neill 600636785

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