ABC of expat woman's life: C - Culture shock

23 February 2011, by

There may already be many books and articles about culture shock but I feel there can never be enough attention to that topic.

When I first moved to the Netherlands seven years ago, I did not know much about culture shock. I thought if I move to a country in Asia or Africa then there is a big chance that something like culture shock will hit me.

Moving from Poland to the Netherlands did not worry me as far as cultural differences are concerned. How naive can one be.

culture shock
Photo by Flickr user David Masters

I continued my life in the Netherlands and went through all phases of culture shock without even realising it. Certain parts of this article may sound obvious to some but others may find them quite useful; understanding what you are going through can make the whole process of acculturation much less bumpy.

The word "culture"

First, I want to start with the definition of the culture. The word "culture" has its origin in Latin and was initially used as agri cultura that meant cultivation of the soil. Later, it was used as a metaphor by philosopher Cicero cultura amini, cultivation of the soul in the meaning of human development.

Today, we use "culture" to describe a system where people share the same values, laws, believes, language, philosophy and knowledge.

We are not aware of the culture until we start socialising (family, school, society etc.); a blueprint that we will always use to understand the world and to give meaning to experiences and things around us.

People of the same culture share the same way of experiencing, thinking of and solving problems that come on their way. They understand each other because they share the same system.

Put simply, culture provides "glasses" through which we perceive and understand the world.

So, what happens when two people of different cultures meet? They both wear different pairs of glasses. Even if they communicate in the same language, meanings and interpretations of the same things can vary significantly. This process can be very frustrating.

Culture shock

Now, let’s say you are going to live in a new country and thus, culture. It is not just one person that wears different glasses, it is everyone; culture shock! The bad news is it is to a certain extent inevitable. The good news is that it is manageable.

So, the roots of a culture shock lie on the fact that everything you have learned before (self-evident truths) are to a certain extent not valid any more. Starting with the "essentials" like religion, values, language and down to small details as visiting the doctor or washing the dishes.

Things are just different. The words do not mean the same any more. We cannot and should not take anything for granted any more.

The phases of culture shock

Honeymoon phase - right after arrival

It can last from a few days to a few months. You are fascinated; new food, new people, a new life is lying ahead of you. As the name itself indicates, this phase does not last long.

Negotiation phase - difficult & painful

You are not able to make yourself understood and / or understand others. In this phase, people often feel anxious, sad, helpless or depressed. They may sleep, eat and drink excessively, feel homesick and abandon their social life.

After weeks or months of struggle, some people go naturally out of this phase and start developing their own strategies to deal with the new culture and reality. Others might need a helping hand to reach that stage.

Adjustment phase - familiarise

You become familiar with your new culture, its rituals and customs. You develop new coping strategies and ways to resolve problems.

Mastery phase - time to enjoy

The last phase is when you feel comfortable with the local culture and fully enjoy what it has to offer. It does not mean that you are totally converted but you can experience and enjoy a new life rather than hurdles and struggles.

Please note that not everyone has to go through all four traditional phases or follow the same order; life is more complicated than that. This is a valuable tool that allows you to position yourself on your own acculturation process.

How to manage culture shock?

What you are going through is a natural process. You are not alone; most will go through once they confront a new culture.

Read as much as possible about the new country and its culture before arriving.

If possible, plan an orientation visit to experience the country before moving in.

Sounds cliché but is very true: If you want to stay longer in another country try to learn the language. It will make your life much easier and the locals will appreciate your effort.

Try to mingle with the locals; go to places they go to, try their food, learn new customs and participate in local social events.

Do not be afraid or ashamed to ask for help once you feel lost, stuck or homesick.

Every day think about all those positive things the new culture has to offer and focus on the positive aspects.

Try not to under / over estimate your own culture. It is not better or worse, it is just different.

Probably the most important thing is not to make any assumptions based on your own cultural background. For example, yes does not really mean yes in all countries; it could only be a sign of courtesy.

Finally, when communicating with others, do not be afraid to ask. During discussions, identify what the others really mean and of course, how they perceive what you say.

Please share your own "culture shock story" and how you dealt with it.

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Comments arranged by date (Total 16 comments)  
February 24 2011, 09:45AM

Dorota, I am curios - what was the culture shock for yourself when you moved here?

I have been living here in total for almost a year by now and never got a bit of negotiation phase. Not sure which phase I am now as it seems to be a mixture of them :)

February 24 2011, 11:02AM

Very nice article. My compliments. I'd like to add that what isn't making all of this easier is that we tend to believe we understand each other so well. Because most expats and Dutch speak English fairly well. However, therefore it is lost upon us that whilst we may say the same, the meaning might be very different. Because our background is different. Polite being direct to name but a thing. In many international organisations (companies etc.) this is a much bigger problem than one would think. Happen to have some insight on this subject.

February 24 2011, 11:29AM

Hi Anita,

I am happy to hear you have managed so far to avoid the nasty 'negotiation' phase. I did go through it myself. I guess part of it had to do with the fact that I had to travel a lot for my work and it was difficult to make a real meaningful friendships in the beginning. I believe that if you have a good social base right from the start the whole 'acculturation process' can go much smoother.

February 24 2011, 11:32AM

Thanks Louis. I am glad you enjoyed the article. I fully agree with you that the danger might lie in communicating in the same language but having been brought up in the different cultures. That is why I also mentioned about not making any assumptions while communicating. It can save us a lot of painful miscommunications.

February 24 2011, 03:03PM

What if you split your time? For example, some expats have to spend 2-3 weeks in the Netherlands and the rest of the month back home or in another country. Culture shocks apply to these cases? Right now, I dont know what to accept as permanent, if there is such a thing.

February 26 2011, 08:38AM

Hi Max, I think culture shock applies also to such cases and it makes it even more complicated. What you often see that people try balancing continuously between two cultures. You can develop a feeling that you do not feel at home in neither of cultures. Looking at it from a positive side though you can try to combine the features of both cultures. That is easier said than done but I believe worth while a try. Was this helpful?

February 26 2011, 08:42AM

Thank you for sharing Dorota!

February 26 2011, 09:47AM

You are welcome ;-) was it helpful? Would you like to share which part?

February 26 2011, 01:29PM

I would position myself at the adjustment phase and admittedly it took quite some time and effort to go through the negotiation phase. My next milestone is to learn Dutch, it is absolutely true that this is essential in order to fully exploit the merits of this wonderful country

February 26 2011, 08:47PM

Do you know what helped you to go from negotiation phase to adjustment phase? It helps to know what things are working for us and which not. You can use that further on your journey to mastery phase.

March 09 2011, 01:27PM

The negotiation phase went on quite a while for me and learning Dutch is a very helpful step toward becoming more integrated. I felt like a fish out of water in my first few months but now I consider this to be home for me and there are many things I love about my new home.

March 11 2011, 07:23AM

Hi Victoria, great to hear that you like your home country so much. I agree with you that learning the language (Dutch) helps a lot in the integration process. How long do you live now in the NL?

August 09 2011, 05:26PM

Thank you for sharing this article, Dorota. It's interesting how the phases get different names in different publications although in the end the meaning stays the same. I never heard the second phase as negotiation phase so that's a new perspective for me. :)

I work a lot with culture shock and I take a bit of a different approach. Instead of calling them phases I can them perspectives and I encourage my clients to change those perspectives at will instead of waiting for them to pass. I've used this system for a few years now and did a show with ExpatsRadio on how exactly it works. Here is the link to the podcast (scroll down for MP3):

March 02 2012, 11:58AM

Nice article, very nice, thank you for sharing.

I moved here 4 years ago, "because love is blind'" :).
I consider my self a very addaptable person, I have always said, that my culture is not better not worse, just different, and I found very funny that you also say the same.
Some people in my past work usually said to me that "Oh now you have a good life" and I always said to them that I had a good life in Costa Rica, here I have a good life, both very different from each other.
I tried to read about the history of the country, learn the language and watch the news and dutch tv even though I didnt understand anything, but that helps very much...
I love spruitjes, the seasons and have no complaints about the country, but.......
and here is where the culture shock attack me.
-Dutch culture is very direct, and that direct way of saying thing sometimes might hurt if you are not used to it.
-Dutch doctors, I dont know what is it, but for me a doctor is a person that will give me time to explain my illness, that will explain everything that I need to know and will do their best to find out what is wrong with my health, and unfortunately I havent had a good experience with doctors here, if I can avoid going to them, I will avoid it as much as I can.
-Customer service, that is all I have to say about that :):):)

For the rest I have walked all the phases that Dorota explains and I have survived them all, I think in some point, depends on your situation, sometimes you walk them more than once.

Thank God I have the best family in law in the world and they have adopted me as a daughter, and that make the path easier.

September 14 2012, 12:18PM

Lilli, I can recognise very well your doubts about doctors and customer service :). I visited your beautiful country once and I experienced such a level of politeness, kindness, customer approach and genuine interest 'if you are ok', that I can only imagine it must be a little frustrating for you to deal with doctors and customer service in NL :). But on the other hand, Holland gives everybody a chance to advance and gives an opportunity to develop and that is the biggest strenght in my opinion of this nice flat country :).
Best regards,

September 14 2012, 12:19PM

I seem to be in circles - going through them all again and again from time to time (even after 8 years) :).

About the Author
Dorota Klop-Sowinska

I specialize in international career and expat coaching. I am a certified coach / counselor at Dutch...



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