Moving to a new cultural environment. A powerful transitional experience

Culture does matter. Why?


I myself am an expat – or (im)migrant if we want to erase any privilege that the word expat evokes. I am living far away from my own country and this did have an influence on who I am and how my own story developed. I truly believe that culture matters and being exposed or immersed in a new cultural environment does have an impact on our life and decisions. This may seem a mere opinion – it is not. What I say bases its roots in the so-called Cultural Iceberg Model by Edward T. Hall. Everything above the waterline is visible to the external world and represents all the conscious behaviors and visible customs and traditions – clear to understand and identify. All the rest, underneath, is unknown and represent our core values, beliefs, assumptions – difficult to comprehend and recognize. If you immerge yourself in a new cultural environment where people behave differently, where they question your own habits certainties and values, you will begin to see through different perspectives to then realize how the cultural environment you grew up in or the one you are exposed to is significant and carries a weight to define who you are and why you act in a certain way.

While writing this article I asked myself who could be interested in such a discussion, who could benefit from it. The answer was quite fast and easy: everybody, at least everybody who is curious enough! And, while you are reading my article, let me say that YOU might enjoy it too!

You, who live abroad and wish to understand how to cope with the challenges of being in a different cultural environment. You, that for whatever reasons, are planning to move abroad and have some doubts on what to expect. And you, happily living in your own country and curious to know more about those courageous or reckless people who moved abroad.

To understand the effects that relocating abroad has, we need to ask ourselves What does it really mean “moving to a new cultural environment?”. It’s crucial to acknowledge that the moment you move is like a domino effect, there will be different reactions and these reactions will depend on the stage of this transition, meaning the act of relocating, moving from where you are familiar with to a new environment. The transition is something we are not used to, it creates strange, sometimes even weird feelings, it makes us uncomfortable and it’s something we don’t necessarily understand. The transition often creates a shock, perceived differently by different individuals due to the new cultural setting they’re immersed into. This transition is called culture shock.


A little bit of history


In 1951 Cora Du Bois, an American cultural anthropologist, coined the phrase “culture shock” by referring to the sense of bewilderment and disorientation that anthropologists felt when dealing with different cultures during field studies. Later in 1954, Kalervo Oberg (a Canadian anthropologist) resumed the expression to extend its meaning to all those people who travel abroad and face new habits and unfamiliar ways of life that cause personal disorientation. In one of his studies Oberg categorized the phenomenon as “occupational disease”. This definition seems quite outdated nowadays and we can describe the culture shock as “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation” (see Merriam Webster dictionary).

Definitions apart, according to Oberg’s research, culture shock can be described as consisting of at least one of four distinct phases:

  • honeymoon stage – the moment we are happy, we have this sense of excitement because we are moving from a place we know to a place which is new, hence we have a lot of positive expectations and we find the new culture fascinating;
  • regression – a period of confusion after experiencing the initial difficulties of living in the new environment; this phase is characterized by a dislike of the new culture, use of stereotypes about the natives and a general sense of anger and/or disorientation;
  • adjustment – a period in which people try to understand, to experiment new habits or familiarize with a different communication style. It’s a crucial stage because we begin to feel “fine” even if we are not in our own country, we are trying to be part of a new community and succeed by learning and adapting to new ways of life;
  • recovery – the final phase, a natural development, a moment of acceptance that is consequent to the adjustment and the loosening of unrealistic expectations; this moment represents a breakthrough in which we realize that the new culture is another way of living and we are finally able to understand its different beliefs, customs and in general, its modus vivendi.

Do all people experience these phases equally and with the same intensity? The answer is no. Some may be slightly affected by the change of cultural environment thanks to their high level of adaptability, as well as cultural and/or self-awareness. Some others may struggle to adjust due to high resistance to a new set of behaviors or a lot of other reasons often hidden superficially. Not everybody may be particularly excited to move to a new country and they may lack that enthusiasm typical of every beginning. However, they may enjoy the changes later and assimilate the new environment’s set of rules in their own.

Different people, different reactions. Moving to a new cultural environment means transitioning from ‘the known’ to ‘the unknown’ and accepting to face the challenges and joys of the journey.

Lucia Bernabei

MIC Alumni