Anyone who has lived outside their passport country for an extended length of time will tell you that adapting to a new culture can be extremely rocky. Many will say that the first six months to one year of living abroad is like riding on a never-ending roller-coaster. Professionals in the intercultural field will recall the four phases of the “U” Curve of Cultural Adjustment (Lysgaard, 1955): 1. honeymoon/euphoria 2. anti-climactic culture shock 3. adaptation, and 4. integration. Later on, Gullahorn and Gullahorn (1963) presented the “W” Curve, including the returnees’ process of re-entry and reverse culture shock upon arrival to their country of origin. Over the years, multiple intercultural theorists have debunked the curve theories of cultural adaptation, proving them to be incomplete and non-representative of many multicultural individuals’ experiences (see Bruce La Brack’s summary). While limited in their scope, adjustment curves still serve a visually pragmatic purpose—they convey to workshop participants and first-time expatriates and their families that they are indeed in for a long, bumpy ride. Specific answers to the questions regarding how, when and for how long? will depend on the individual or family’s profile.
While individual expats and their families are more diverse than ever, it’s particularly important to pay attention to the co-expatriate’s cultural adjustment process. In an effort to recognize the fundamental importance of the non-working spouse in an expatriate assignment, Global Mobility professionals have adopted the term “co-expatriate” to refer to the expatriate’s partner. We’ve compiled a few tips for co-expats (and professionals who work with them) to have a more successful adaptation:
1. Recognize what has changed
On overseas assignments, while the working spouse is absorbed in their job functions, and children are familiarizing themselves in their new school, most co-expatriates find themselves in a completely new role. They may have left a job or career and feel suddenly “useless”. Spouses who were not working outside the home beforehand may feel lost without their usual routines, social networks, and extended family support. Whatever the specific changes of living abroad, co-expatriates lose significant parts of their identity on an international assignment. Making sure they and their immediate family members acknowledge this change is an important first step in creating room for co-expats to develop new interests and priorities.
2. Learn the local language
Effective communication is one of the primary measures of success during an expatriation. While the working spouse is often preoccupied with office functions and their job performance, co-expatriates usually take the lead maintaining social connections and communications with their children’s school. Differänce co-expatriate, Milena Silveira Guimarães Lamon shares her perspective about language learning,
“As soon as you arrive at your destination, you have to get domain of the language. This must be your priority… It’s extremely important to speak the language to feel more confident and to have no barriers to socialize, make friends, and develop new skills… When you are able to speak you feel more comfortable scheduling appointments by phone or in person, meeting your new friends, or working as a volunteer. Language is the key to be happy with your new life.”
We recommend group language classes since they provide the added benefit of external socializing and the much-needed excuse to “get out of the house.” However, for some co-expatriates, private lessons or online learning opportunities are better choices. What’s important is to dedicate time to become conversationally fluent.
3. Engage your curiosity and keep busy
Distractions can be a co-expat’s greatest adjustment tool. We encourage co-expats to get involved in as many activities as possible while learning about their new surroundings. Joining volunteer groups, a sports club or gym, or enrolling in a course in a passionate subject area, are all excellent opportunities for co-expats to develop a new social network and find purpose. From Milena’s experience as a co-expatriate:
“Adaptation is easier when you do something that you really like. If you are able to take a course, look for something that makes you happy and at the same time enjoy this opportunity to always learn something new. Take this opportunity as if it were the only one.”
The idea is that each day, every family member will come home exhausted; from speaking and thinking in a non-native language, from making new connections and having engaged in different activities, and from overcoming the small but important daily challenges of living abroad.
4. Recreate your support network
Successful co-expats often talk about the surprising friendships they developed while abroad; with other foreigners from diverse backgrounds, with parents at their children’s school, or with members of the same faith groups. It’s important to keep an open mind. In the lack of external familial obligations and other routines, co-expats must get creative about how to develop new friendships. Because they share similar experiences and have gone through related struggles, co-expats often find their most meaningful friendships in other co-expats, usually of different nationalities. At Differänce, we caution against falling into the easy ‘expat bubble’, particularly, with individuals that share the same national background. While it’s important to experience the relief that comes from limited amounts of time speaking your national language, spending long-periods immersed in groups of one’s own nationality while abroad does not help individuals integrate into the new culture.
With these suggestions fresh in mind, cultural adjustment may seem like a relatively easy and straightforward process, but nothing could be further from the truth. Adaptation is difficult and complex. It varies greatly depending on an individual’s personality, unique set of needs, and the circumstances and reasons behind the international move. Sometimes, overcoming the challenges presented by cultural adaptation becomes almost addictive. As area professionals, we see expats and co-expats who get so used to the adrenaline and excitement generated by moving environments and cracking new cultural codes, that any other lifestyle seems boring by comparison. What we’ve learned through our lived experiences and try our best to convey to others, is that one can access that roller-coaster feeling brought on by cultural adaptation, independent of where you are in the world. It’s part of developing a global mindset a strong cultural intelligence (CQ), and staying vigilant about finding new ways to feed one’s curiosity.
A special thanks to Milena Silveira Guimarães Lamon for her insights and contributions to this article.