By: Ekaterina von Gertten, Learning Solutions Architect
Moving to a new country may be a very exciting experience full of adventure and inspiration, but it can also be challenging and overwhelming. No matter how it goes for you, one thing is clear: it will most likely change your life—and you—in ways you can hardly imagine.
Having worked with expatriates for many years, I know that there’s so much written on the subject of relocation, and it can be difficult to know what to pay attention to and attend to first. My guidance for taking control of your cultural adaptation process is rooted in three key principles:
1. The circumstances of your move will influence your process of adaptation. Embrace your individual process.
The dream scenario is, of course, that all details of your move are settled prior to your departure, you have an exciting job and a welcoming team waiting for you, your family members look forward to the move, you are going to a place you’ve always dreamt of visiting, and the timing couldn’t be more right. In reality, however, all points are rarely checked off.
Throughout my years helping people prepare for international assignments, I have met those who, after traveling thousands of kilometers, discover upon their arrival that they will be stuck in a small hotel room with their small kids for an undetermined number of weeks due to the covid-19 pandemic. Or those who were given a week or sometimes less to make the decision to make a permanent move because of the impending war in Ukraine. I also work with those whose spouse or partner, after initially agreeing to the move, discover in the middle of it that it is not at all what they want to do.
Tip 1: Don’t worry if after your initial excitement, there comes a period of rejection of the new culture. This is normal—the adaptation curve is never straight—and can mean that your brain has had too many new impressions to digest. Don’t worry, your energy level and tolerance towards the new will rise.
Tip 2: Name your feelings. Journaling is a good way to do this. When you put your experiences into words, it reduces the feeling of being a victim of change. When your brain “knows” what is happening with you, it provides a sense of understanding and control over the process.
2. Distinguish between settling down in a new country and adapting to the new culture. It is the latter that ultimately defines how comfortable you’ll feel.
Beyond tasks like finding housing, a good school for your kids, and learning a new medical system, thriving in a new country is very much about feeling that you belong. This feeling consists of a few things, like the ability to make correct assumptions about how your behavior may be perceived, and the ability to build meaningful relationships. The key is to learn communication norms and what influences behavior in this new culture.
Tip 1: Pay attention to how people are communicating. Do they tend to be direct or indirect? Does familiarity or status influence their communication style? How emotional is their speech? What is the accepted voice speed and volume? Do they often utilize nonverbal communication? It can be exciting to become a “cultural chameleon,” and notice how you naturally start communicating differently in various cultures. This has been true for my own ways of communicating in Sweden compared to Belarus, my home country. At first the adjustment was a struggle, but now it feels completely natural and I don’t even notice how I change.
Tip 2: Try to figure out how people build relationships. Do they prefer to do things together first before engaging in deeper conversations, or vice versa? How much are personal and professional topics intertwined? What topics are OK to talk about and when? Do you get a feeling that you overshare or undershare? My clients and I agree this is a step that takes a little bit of time, so don’t worry if relationship building is a longer process than you expected.
Tip 3: Build up your cultural awareness. Read books that provide cultural insight, or use tools that help develop cultural intelligence. GlobeSmart is one such tool that is home to 100+ Culture Guides providing extensive information on what life is like in cultures around the world. (Learn how you can get access!)
3. The key to thriving in a new culture lies in the right balance between the old and the new. Avoid the extremes of the expat bubble and full assimilation.
Finding that unique, individual balance between what you are used to and what is new is essential to ease any insecurity or anxiety you may feel.
Tip 1: When you are worrying, think of something (a thing, place, activity, etc.) that makes you feel inner comfort. Maybe it’s holding a hot cup of tea in your hands, taking a walk in the woods, or talking to a pet. I remember that for me it was having old Soviet films on repeat in the background for three months or so—films I had zero interest in or watched before! Somehow they created that sense of home for me. Amidst all the chaos, one moment of stillness and peace can grow into a few minutes, an hour, a day, and even longer when you know what’s happening around you and you can feel a sense of grounding.
Tip 2: Connect. We are social beings. We need it. To keep yourself from slinking into “the expat bubble,” which can be very comfortable but very isolating, find people who can relate to your relocation experience and teach you the right way to communicate with locals.
Of course there will always be the risk of making cultural mistakes, and you may at times feel as if you are on a different planet. But these new encounters with people different from you will help you grow in innumerable ways, and make it possible for you to feel a sense of belonging in a brand new culture.
Explore our new GlobeSmart learning module, Preparing for your Global Adventure, for those going on international assignment.
About the Author
Ekaterina von Gertten , Learning Solutions Architect and Senior Consultant
As Senior Consultant and Learning Solutions Architect for Global Mobility at Aperian Global, Ekaterina partners with individuals and groups around the world, with a focus on the EMEA region. Her driving force lies in being able to make people feel seen and their needs heard.
Home base for Ms. von Gertten is currently Malmö, Sweden, where she lives with her family. Her coaching, public speaking, and facilitation are conducted in English, Swedish, Belarusian, and Russian. She is a native of Minsk, Belarus, and has also spent time working or studying in the United States, the United Kingdom, Austria, Japan, and Belgium.
Connect with Ekaterina on LinkedIn
Stay up-to-date with GlobeSmart
Sign up to receive our latest insights on global collaboration and inclusion in the workplace.