Why people struggle with engaging a new culture

There are several key issues that prevent adjustment of an individual in an international assignment. For a family considering an international assignment, the following list of typical responses is worth reviewing. One or more of these issues may impact any member of the family, although some are particularly relevant to the children and accompanying spouses.

1. "I don't want to"

This response may take various forms of expression ranging from refusal to unpack boxes to not unpacking one's mind. The latter is most serious because it is a subconscious decision to slow down the process of integrating into the culture.

This decision manifests itself in a variety of ways. It may be overt — acting out in school, vandalism, refusing to settle, not making friends, etc. It may be self- destructive — hiding out in cyberspace, various forms of addiction, etc.

2. "I don't know the new culture"

The lack of basic cultural awareness, including an understanding of culture stress (which includes culture shock), leaves many expatriates stuck in a state of avoidance, anger, or mockery which unfortunately prevents gaining appreciation and enjoyment of the new culture and the healthy adjustments that follow.

3. "I don't like the new culture"

More often than not, this is directly related to point #2. Failure to develop acquaintances and friendships with people in the new culture leads to a strong dislike for the host culture. Maintaining a distance from the culture in turn leads to a posture of judgment rather than understanding.

One may still dislike things about the new culture, but relationships allow "bridges of appreciation" to be built.

4. "I'm afraid of being disloyal to who and where I was before"

This is often an issue for young people and accompanying spouses who have developed close ties with friends and places somewhere else and are afraid that appreciation and enjoyable participation in their new setting may reflect negatively on their commitment to who and what they have left. To learn to enjoy and appreciate wherever they are and with whomever they are with may come slowly without outside help. Encouragement as well as good new friends is key.

5. "It doesn't feel right"

Personality plays an important role as well. The more rigid a personality you have, the more organized you like your life to be, the more structured you are — the more difficulty you have in a new environment. By nature moving into a new situation/culture is chaotic. There is no structure; even worse you may be very dependent on someone else's structure. True, there's not much you can do to change your personality, but being aware of it will hopefully empower you to give yourself permission to say, "It doesn't feel right" without feeling like you are going insane.

6. "We didn't leave well"

There are several reasons for this issue. The main one is that people think they know all they need to know about making adjustments. After all, aren't we dealing with intelligent, capable adults?

The transition experience and cultural adjustment are predictable enough to allow appropriate warnings and understanding. Knowing about theses issues does not prevent the experience from confronting a person, but it does give opportunity for people to make better decisions while in the process. It also empowers the expatriate to better understand and be patient and helpful to others, like family members, who are facing a similar experience.

Taken from Interaction International, PO Box 25848, Colorado Springs, CO 80936, tckinteract.net