Cultural Surprise or Cultural Shock? What to Expect and Ways to Deal with Transition - ExpatJoy

ExpatJoy - Passionate Global Living with Sandra Bissell


Cultural Surprise or Cultural Shock? What to Expect and Ways to Deal with Transition

If you have been an expatriate for a long enough time you might agree that we all go through cultural surprises and some degree of cultural shock from time to time.

Adjusting to a new culture can be challenging even when we have moved all over the world and may  consider ourselves experts.

Just recently, I notice that I had been avoiding American youth sports events since we relocated from Switzerland to the United States.

My daughter is active at her high school’s sports leagues, which puts me in the uneasy position of wanting to watch her games – but feeling very uncomfortable once there.
I find these sports events loud and way too competitive. Parents and coaches yelling at team members and even worse, at the referees. This is a disrespectful attitude towards the players and the visiting  team member, on top of not fostering an environment of growth – of course, this is only my opinion.

All events I have attended are filled with well-meaning parents cheering on their kids. Like me, they find time in their busy schedules to be there, encouraging their children. Yet, it seems that I am the only one bothered and surprised by some of the parents’ behavior.

SO, am I alone?

Experiencing cultural shock and/or surprise isn’t reserved only to first-time expats and the occasional traveler. All of us can face feelings of awkwardness, amazement, irritability and even anxiety when inserted into a new culture. These feelings tend to surface, especially, if we are still going through the adaptation phase. 

Knowing that adapting to our new surroundings is crucial to the success of our lives abroad doesn’t make it easier to cope, and to ward off these feelings.

A survey of 196 human resource managers conducted by the U.S. National Foreign Trade Council revealed that 58% of all failed expat assignments  were due to poor adaptation.

Clearly, I’m NOT alone dealing with cultural shock.

But what is cultural shock anyhow?

It’s a state created by the experience of leaving behind a familiar culture and moving to a foreign, new, and unfamiliar environment.

By becoming an expatriate, most of us will experience some degree of cultural shock.

 Now, if you are getting ready to move abroad, have just arrived at a new country, or are facing some culturally charged situations, there is no need to brace yourself too tightly.

 A little preparation and few actions can go a long way towards a successful international life.


Educate yourself by reading studies, books, blogs and forums on how expatriates adapt to their new countries. Others’  experiences  may shorten your learning curve and adaptation time.

Locate and maintain a network of like-minded people as you get settled. It may be less complicated to ask fellow expats questions related to cultural issues than to approach a native person. By joining a local newcomer group, you will gain a view of how others navigate in situations similar to the ones you are encountering.

Learn the local language. One of the important ways to integrate into a new culture is by speaking the native language.

Allow time to adjust. This is a tricky one. Each of us will adjust differently, and will take a longer or shorter period to integrate to our new community. Be patient to others and yourself. Forgive yourself for making mistakes.

Maintain your individuality. Although it is important to understand your new environment and to change behaviors that can be perceived as disrespectful in your new country, keep your uniqueness and celebrate it whenever possible.

-Embrace aspects of your new culture that resonates with you first. Then, try to learn about the cultural parts that don’t make sense yet.

-Be a tourist. By approaching your new country as an exciting destination at first your will lift some of the pressure of trying to fit in immediately.

When we travel, we don’t expect to know everything and act like that country’s citizen. Take the opportunity of finding wonder where most locals can’t see it anymore.

-Enjoy the novelty of being different. With time, you will learn some of locally accepted behaviors and even incorporate these new ways into your persona.

-Avoid hanging out with negative old-tim expatriates. Those who have been there for a long time and chose not to learn the local language and culture, yet have plenty of criticism towards the hosting country.  They will drag you down and depress you.

Although you will never hear me screaming at any youth events in the near future, by observation and learning more about American culture, I came to realize that in a society where independence is highly valued, many parents feel that loudly “cheering “ is a way to motivate their kids.

Motivating our kids is a universal need shared by most parents, and at this level I understand American parents behavior and can relate to them in a more affectionate way.

So, what do you think? Can you benefit from some of these actions steps? What else can we, expatriates, do to minimize the effects of cultural shock?

I look forward and appreciate your comments.

Hugs & Kisses

Sandra Bissell

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My name is Sandra Bissell.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to live as an expatriate for more than 2 decades.

Some of my passions are people, my family, good conversations, traveling, ethnic food, dancing and Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian-Martial-Art-Dance.

Originally from the countryside of São Paulo state, in Brazil, I have enjoyed life in Kanagawa and Aichi prefectures, in Japan, Boston and San Diego cities, in the United States, São Paulo, Brazil, as an expatriate in my own country, Zurich – Switzerland and most recently Stamford, Connecticut, back to the United States.

As you may guess, I feel the most comfortable within the international community.
ExpatJoy - Passionate Global Living with Sandra Bissell


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