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Coping with Culture Shock During an Overseas Move

Moving to a new country is an adventure that often comes with its own set of challenges, chief among them being culture shock. This phenomenon encompasses the range of emotional and psychological reactions people experience when immersed in a foreign culture.

coping with culture shock after an overseas move

It typically starts with an initial honeymoon phase, during which everything about the new place feels exciting. However, as the novelty fades, various challenges such as misunderstandings, feelings of loss, and frustrations can arise, marking the onset of true culture shock.

Most people I’ve met who moved abroad learn how to adapt and are overwhelmingly happy they made the transition. Others get increasingly frustrated and unhappy, however, as time goes on. They end up giving up. They move back to the land of their birth because they just can’t manage to adjust to the challenges of the new environment. 

As someone who has lived in Mexico off and on since 2010 and lived in Turkey and Korea in my younger years teaching English, I’ve figured out how to deal with this several times now. None of those countries were much like the one I left, including the language spoken.

Here are some ideas on learning how to cope with culture shock during an overseas move to become a part of your new community.

Understanding What Culture Shock Is

Culture shock isn’t just about feeling out of place. It’s a complex experience that affects individuals on multiple levels, including emotions, identity, and interpersonal relations. Initially, the new environment is thrilling, but soon, the lack of familiar social cues, language barriers, and differences in daily routines can lead to feelings of confusion and isolation.

The excitement may wane as days turn into weeks, replaced by a sobering awareness of the gaps between your expectations and reality. Navigating this landscape requires a blend of open-mindedness and resilience, as every interaction and every misstep becomes a learning opportunity.

While we humans may have the same basic needs and wants, and the world has gotten more globalized, each country and even each community within it has different traditions, social norms, habits, and assumptions. These all impact how they see the world (and you) and how they interact with each other. Their language can even have different levels of formality that result in different reactions just from how the accent is placed or which verb form is used. 

In my experience, those expatriates who have their eyes, ears, and mind open learn to navigate these challenges over time and the culture shocks become less shocking. Those who expect everything to function like it did where they left and even try to change the culture of where 

The Emotional Journey

The journey through culture shock often involves a gradual transition from curiosity to potentially intense feelings of disorientation and distress. You might start missing your favorite foods, feeling irritable, having difficulty sleeping, or becoming overly critical of the culture you’re trying to embrace. Recognizing that these reactions are part of a normal adjustment process can be reassuring and is the first step toward coping effectively.

This emotional rollercoaster can fluctuate daily—you may feel progress one day only to face setbacks the next. Such swings are normal, and acknowledging them can help you manage expectations and find your footing in unfamiliar terrain.

Culture shock can stir up many emotions

Building a New Support System

Establishing a new support network is one of the best ways to combat culture shock during an overseas move. Reaching out to fellow expatriates who might be facing similar challenges can be comforting. Nearly every place with more than a few dozen expats will have some kind of Facebook group now.

Local community groups and social clubs are also great places to meet new people. In real life, you may meet others at a certain coffee shop or bar, or perhaps at the local cultural performances. Depending on the country you’ve moved to, it may be very easy to spot the other foreigners, so many expats make more friends after moving than they had back home. 

Likewise, keeping in touch with friends and family back home can anchor you with a sense of familiarity and support. This blend of old and new ties helps to create a safety net that can catch you when cultural misunderstandings or feelings of alienation occur. Engaging regularly with this network, whether through social media, regular meet-ups, or even virtual hangouts, ensures you have a wellspring of advice and (hopefully) empathy at your fingertips.

Overcoming Language Barriers

Spanish School immersion in Latin America

Language is often a significant barrier, and learning the local language can be immensely helpful. More than just aiding in everyday interactions, language proficiency can help you connect deeply with the culture and the community. Many language classes also offer social opportunities which are beneficial for building friendships and expanding your support network.

When I look back at the first year we moved to Guanajuato, many of the friends we made were people who were in Spanish classes with us or in some cases even the teachers. Some of them are still friends today. Many communities also have some kind of free two-way language exchanges: you help the locals learn English while they help you learn their language through natural conversations. 

As you begin to understand and communicate in the local language, even basic conversations at the market or with neighbors can become less intimidating and more rewarding. This newfound ability not only eases daily transactions but also enriches your cultural experience, making you feel more like a part of the community rather than a distant observer.

I’ve found that language proficiency can set you apart from the tourists just passing through, as well, causing the locals to look at you differently and perhaps even go out of their way to ease your transition. On the other hand, not learning any of the local language can cause people to think they’re being ripped off or talked about since the conversations flowing around them are a mystery. They see threats that aren’t really there. 

Actively Engaging with the Culture

Exploring the local culture can help combat culture shock during an overseas move. Dive into tasting local delicacies, participating in traditional festivities, visiting landmarks, and understanding the country’s history. Such activities deepen your appreciation of the new culture and make your adjustment smoother and more engaging.

By immersing yourself in the local scene, you start to see the nuances of the culture that aren’t visible from the surface. Attending local theater productions, visiting museums, or even joining fitness classes at the community center can provide further insights into the everyday lives of the people around you. This active engagement is super important for adapting to and thriving in your new environment.

Maintaining Balance with Familiar Routines and Interests

While embracing new experiences is important, maintaining some of your old routines can provide comfort. Whether continuing a hobby from home or keeping up with your usual morning jog, these familiar activities help stabilize your daily life and give you a sense of control in a new environment.

Often the activities you enjoyed at home put you in kind of a private club of interests that can help you interact with other foreigners or locals who share the same interests. A hiking club, biking club, pickleball group, or yoga group can help you both physically and socially. Others may join or form clubs that gather to play cards, play chess, or read the same books.

guanajuato hiking group

Additionally, it is crucial to stay organized during this transition. Keeping track of your commitments, establishing a daily planner, or setting reminders can significantly reduce stress and help you manage your time effectively. This structured approach allows you to handle the changes more smoothly and ensures you don’t overlook important tasks amidst the chaos of moving and settling in a new country.

Seeking Help When Needed

If the adjustment feels overwhelmingly difficult, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Many mental health professionals specialize in helping expatriates navigate the challenges of adapting to a new culture. They can offer valuable strategies to manage stress and improve your emotional well-being.

Therapists or counselors who understand the complexities of cross-cultural transitions can provide support and practical tools for dealing with specific problems, such as dealing with isolation or resolving intercultural conflicts. Sometimes, having a professional validate your feelings and experiences can significantly impact your mental health journey abroad.

a therapist and a patient discussing culture shock during an overseas move - cc photo by pexels

Staying Positive and Patient

Finally, maintaining a positive attitude is fundamental. Focus on the unique opportunities your overseas move has presented. Every challenge is a chance to learn and grow. Patience is key—adjusting to a new culture takes time, and each small step forward is an achievement. Celebrate these small victories, whether mastering a local recipe, making a new friend, or simply navigating public transport successfully.

Keep in mind that resilience builds over time, and maintaining a sense of humor can help lighten the burdens of daily misunderstandings. Staying positive doesn’t mean ignoring the difficulties but rather viewing them through a lens of growth and opportunity.

Overcoming Culture Shock During an Overseas Move

Culture shock during an overseas move is a normal part of relocating internationally. It’s a phase that gradually diminishes as you begin to understand and integrate into your new environment. Acknowledging your feelings, overcoming language barriers, and maintaining a positive outlook can transform your experience into a profoundly enriching journey. Moving abroad tests your adaptability and offers a unique opportunity to expand your horizons and enrich your life.

Embrace the challenge, and the rewards will be worth it. You’ll keep your brain’s synapses working in a way that following a routine in your home country never can. You’ll get an education, learn new skills, and overcome new challenges. 

Since I wrote the book on moving abroad, a book now in its second edition, I’ve interviewed more than 100 expats who have picked up and moved to another country. A couple of them moved back, but the vast majority are living a healthier, happier, and less expensive life. It took a little work to adapt, but in the end they’re much better off.