10 tips to adapt to a foreign culture


People travelling abroad may be shocked by habits and mind-sets in other countries. The need to adapt to a foreign culture (cultural adjustment) is even higher when you are moving overseas for work. Being able to collaborate effectively with your co-workers and to get on well with neighbours becomes vital. Actually, things are not simple at all. Cultural adjustment is a complex process, consisting of four different stages: the initial excitement when you are very motivated and willing to find out more; the culture shock, when you start to feel irritated and homesickness kicks in; gradual adjustment, when you decide to make the most of your experience abroad; and final adaptation or biculturalism. In the end, you start feeling at home in the “foreign” country and you are able to work and enjoy life to its full potential.

The cultural stress that is a normal part of adjusting to a new civilization can have unpleasant symptoms such as fatigue, craving things from home, feeling the need to criticize everything, feeling lonely, and being worried because of small health problems. You can achieve a smooth transition towards complete cultural adjustment by implementing the following tips and tricks:

1. Analyse your behaviour

It’s important to identify your reactions to cultural differences and to be able to tell truly negative situations from signs of cultural shock. For instance, you can’t stand the occasional cooking smell coming from your neighbours and you are really angry about it. Is it because you are really sensitive to cooking smells or is it just a symptom of a difficult cultural adjustment?

2. Get social support

Sources of support may include people back home, expat groups, colleagues from work, and even locals. If talking about difficulties is an effective way of managing stress for you, don’t become a lonely wolf and confidently ask for help from others.

3. Take care of yourself

Adapting to a new culture is easier when you ensure your physical comfort. Ideas for coping with cultural stress include getting enough rest, eating healthily, avoiding bad habits such as binge eating or alcohol abuse, having your favourite toiletries with you, and bringing a supply of necessary medications.

4. Keep an open mind

It is easy to perceive as “wrong” things that are new to us. Instead of judging what you see, remain an objective onlooker and be ready to see things you didn’t expect after the initial background research.

5. Explore the local culture

Living in a cocoon and tricking yourself into thinking you are comfortable will prevent you from getting the most out of your expat experience. Immerse yourself in the local culture by meeting natives, walking around on foot instead of using a car, trying local food, and improving your language level.

6. Stay humble

Avoid comparing your country of origin to the place you are living in right now. Feelings of inferiority or superiority are never helpful when it comes to cultural adjustment. Try to be patient and respectful of the new culture and to accept its odd aspects.

7. Learn the local language

Improving your language level allows you to increase your communication skills and integrate into the local community. It is well-known that language shapes thinking, and polyglots are considered to have multiple personalities. When you speak a country’s language very well, you find it easier to understand its inhabitants and get into their shoes.

One of the easiest ways to learn a new language is using the free language learning website and app Duolingo.

8. Get familiar with the most common phrases and their meaning

In many languages, certain phrases must not be interpreted word by word. Americans will ask “How are you?” and the French will say “Ça va?” both literally meaning “What are you doing?” However, the true meaning of both phrases is “Hello” and no one actually expects you to give details about your well-being. Research this type of phrases in the culture you are trying to adjust to if you want to avoid awkward conversations.

9. Be patient

According to psychologist Geert Hofstede, culture can be compared to an onion that can be peeled layer by layer. This means that just when you think you understand a word or behaviour, you need to step back and wait some more before you provide an explanation for what you believe you now understand. You may be surprised and find out you still have lots of things to learn.

10. Have a good sense of humour

Don’t be hard on yourself when you don’t get a situation or on people around you when they don’t react as expected. Have you made a gaffe? Instead of burying your head in the sand, just laugh at yourself and the others will probably do the same. It doesn’t matter if you make the international sign whose meaning you think is “OK” and instead you are addressing an insult; make fun of it and in the end people will appreciate your tenacity and relaxed style. However, make sure you don’t make such a mistake amidst an angry gang or consequences can be severe regardless of your sense of humour…