What are the major phases of adaptation for an Expat? Why is it so important to understand these different adjustment stages?

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I would like to share with you an article which was written by a psychologist colleague of mine Julie Buguet which I translated from French into English.

I think this is a very informative, interesting and useful article with many practical tips and good advice. I highly recommend it to all expats regardless of the encountered difficulties or challenges or the adaptation stage they are currently in.

Going through these different adjustment phases is a normal and natural process. I believe that the most important is not to remain stuck in any of them, so if you feel overwhelmed by problems and unable to overcome alone these tough challenges, don’t hesitate to turn to a professional who will certainly be able to help you!

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It is not uncommon to meet expat people who are going through a “depressive episode” few months after their expatriation. Getting to know the different (adaptation) phases of expatriation will enable you to understand the different emotional states you are going through during your expatriation and will help you not to lose “hope” when you feel overwhelmed and when everything seems so difficult for you (Feelings like: everything was much better before….”

In any case, knowing these different adjustment stages will allow you to become a real actor of your expatriate experience and to live it more fully, more serenely, more consciously.

What we commonly call “Phases of expatriation” corresponds in fact to the description of “The theory of the U-shaped curve” [1]. This theory makes it possible to describe the process of intercultural adaptation for individuals enrolled in a migration process enhancing that expatriation is also a part of that.

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This adaptation process creates many feelings and generates many reactions, putting the emotions at risk. These reactions are quite normal and typical, they usually do not last which means that understanding and acknowledging the whole mechanism can help to manage these transient, temporary emotional states.

This way, four major phases will thus shape your expatriate experience and will reinforce your intercultural adjustment.

1st Stage: At first it is common to experience a pleasant phase: getting to know the new culture of the country is also called “honeymoon”. The arrival in a host country and the discovery of the new cultural universe is done with euphoria, enchantment or fascination and enthusiasm, everything seems stimulating and interesting. This phase is most often described as a very positive moment in Expats’ lives because everything is new and foreignness, strangeness, unknownness and differences have a fascinating power and empowering effect on us. This stage will match the pleasant discovery of new places, new people, new customs, the fun and pleasure of discovering a culture different from yours. Even if at this point you tend to resort to inappropriate actions towards the host culture. You also may receive negative signals, that are often not recognized or remain sometimes ignored and burried underneath.

What shall we do during this stage? Enjoy, discover, live fully these moments of happinesss that are sometimes very intense, often shared with the family, it is about letting time for ourselves to perceive and discover our new environment. It is also the right time to stimulate your sensations, perceptions and energize your energy. This is also the right moment to stimulate your sensations, awaken your perceptions and revitalize yourself by boosting your energy level. This new glimpse and amazed, curious look you had towards the host country recently discovered, may help you store good memories about your first impressions. These positive feelings of well-being will be undoubtedly useful to you afterwards (and may even serve as inspiring resources in difficult moments.)

2nd stage – After a while (a few weeks for some, a few months for others), these signals become progressively overwhelming and can no longer be ignored. A certain “rejection” of the culture of the host country may occur at that time. This less enjoyable phase would represent the emergence of a crisis in certain people who feel compelled to adapt to a foreign, unknown world, which may after all bring back various feelings of inadequacy, frustration and also anxiety or sometimes anger. This is the appearance of a cultural shock where the tendency and willingness to adjustment will considerably decrease in people (and this may even create a strong resistance). This cultural crisis is like a regression and is often described as a moment of negative experience, all the more the original excitement and eagerness to discover new things fades away and disappears. These cultural differences then become more and more overwhelming and increasingly present and stressful, in particular because of the lack of understanding of the rules that could allow adjustment to the new culture. This is undoubtedly the most difficult phase to overcome. It is under such circumstances that hostility towards the host country and its population can sometimes develop. The misunderstandings that interfere daily with interactions appear to be real obstacles. It is also the moment when some people feel what they call the “homesickness”. The norms and values are intensively searched during this stage, whether they are the ones of the home country or the ones of the last, recently left country. You may begin to doubt your ability to cope with the new environment, adopt negative attitudes towards your surroundings, towards the encountered difficulties, and the loss of your cultural reference points. You can then experience fear, frustration, anger, regret, doubts, resentment, loneliness, loss of confidence. To these feelings will be added a necessity to mourn or grieve the seat of a company, an exciting work, the previous expatriation, friends, previous experiences and memories.

What shall we do during this stage? Be aware that most expatriates adjust and adapt themselves gradually and often “naturally” to their life abroad. We should also bear in mind that the pain we experience caused by our inappropriate behavior is the primary cause of cultural shock, but it is also a source of adaptation. Once a “cultural mistake” is committed, it will be more easily recognized next time, and there is a greater chance that it will not be repeated and will not become a source of frustration or embarrassment. By making mistakes, recognizing them, observing how others behave, we learn from and we adjust better to our host country. Become aware of your difficulties because it is this awareness that will gently enable you to address and approach the phase of acceptance. But sometimes, it may not be easy alone. Some people, however, are never able to cope with the clash of cultures, so they return home prematurely or take refuge in the expatriate community, defending the positivity of the ‘We”’ (the expatriates) against the negativity of the “They” (the natives) and this way the intercultural adaptation becomes very heavy and difficult.

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3rd Stage – This previous, disconcerting phase turns out to be generally positive for the expatriate as long as it is accompanied by a learning process, resulting in personal development. We will gradually settle, assimilate and master cultural codes and habits of the host country. We will get closer and gain autonomy, knowledge and familiarity with the new culture. We will make a compromise by integrating the values of the two cultures.

Then begins the third phase described by the U-shaped curve: the gradual adaptation by learning about the foreign culture which is called “adjustment”. The adaptation to the host country occurs gradually, along with the learning of cultural codes. The language and behaving ways and manners become gradually familiar, but not yet truly acquired. In this phase, you usually recognize the difficulties and try or seek to overcome them.

What shall we do during this stage? Your concerns and your look on your environment are slowly changing, your expectations are changing and your speech is changing, resulting in a new motivation, different behaviors, desires and new projects or plans. Go out, exchange about your discoveries, share your experience, bind new friendships. These activities will allow you to fully embrace the next phase.

4th stage – At the end of Phase 3, the adjustment is usually still incomplete but its degree will increase naturally and gradually over time. At this stage, you already know how to act appropriately in the face of cultural differences and it is then the phase of “maturity” that begins. The stranger becomes progressively an ordinary person, you acquire more independence and you become more and more competent and “successful” in your new environment. You can start to enjoy yourself, benefit from everything around you and take full advantage of your host country because at this time the cultural shock being, is normally surpassed and outdated. The maturity phase will last until the end of your expatriation, in the sense that you will never stop to improve and commit yourself in your “adoption environment”. Some of you may even decide to settle permanently in the host country. The phase of maturity will then extend until integration or assimilation and the acquisition of a personality and the perfect learning of bicultural behaviors and mentalities.

What shall we do during this stage? Find your cultural points of reference, “make your way in your own way”, project yourself into the future, consider new projects share your feelings and experience with others, and communicate your energy to those around you. It is also and probably the time to support your friends through a more difficult phase that you have now overcome. Fully appreciate your new lifestyle and its differences in order to function effectively in your host country and above all rely on your abilities and resources, and take advantage of your new possibilities.

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This U-shaped curve model is often used by coaches specialized in expatriation and in professional applications concerning the management of international mobility.

While many expatriates experience a culture shock in line with the U-shaped curve model, all schools of thoughts do not support this model. Some authors prefer to use the reverse model: the reverse U-shaped curve. The different phases of the cultural shock would follow the opposite of what we have just described. The expatriate would begin his expatriation with an episode understood as more difficult mainly due to the shock caused by the change of environment and the difficulties encountered when arriving in the host country.

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Article written by Julie Buguet, psychologist, translated by Andrea Szepesi, coach.