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The cultural shock

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

If expatriation has an impact on the career and professional life of the spouse, we must not forget that beyond that, the simple fact of arriving in a different country creates a cultural shock.

Many factors are responsible for this culture shock, culture, life habits, language, customs...

The stages of the cultural shock

Whether it is the expatriates or their spouse, all will be affected by the culture shock. However, the expatriate, unlike his spouse, will have a rhythm and social interactions thanks to his work. Being socially isolated, the spouse will experience each phase of the culture shock more intensely. And in the case where the spouse was not included in the discussion concerning the expatriation and is "undergoing" it, he or she will experience this culture shock as a real aggression.

This culture shock can be divided into several phases through which the spouse will pass during the expatriation. There are 3 phases: the honeymoon, the rejection phase, and the adaptation.

The honeymoon:

Except in cases where the expatriation has been imposed on the spouse, this phase is the first one he/she will experience. It is the discovery phase, everything is interesting, new, and fun. The spouse and his/her family discover new places, new people, food, customs, etc... The feeling is the same as during a vacation in a way.

Depending on the duration of the expatriation, this phase can last from a few weeks to a few months. However, for short term expatriations, it is often the only phase.

The rejection phase :

After a while the honeymoon ends because there is no longer the novelty and excitement. Then comes the return to reality, where the cultural differences that amazed you make your everyday life more complicated.

How do you explain needing a plumber when you don't speak the language? Who do you call when you have a car accident? Why do you have to go to the hospital when it would be easier to see a doctor?

The fact of not understanding the codes, the gestures or the people can be annoying and gives the spouse the feeling that he/she is being used, that he/she is being made fun of.

In addition to this, there is also homesickness, because one keeps telling oneself "I didn't have all these problems back home", "if I were in my country, I would know how to do this"...

The length of this phase depends on the people and how they are accompanied and helped. But often if this phase lasts too long, it pushes the expatriation to a premature end.

The adaptation :

This phase begins once the spouse has come to terms with his or her new life and is able to see things in a more positive light. He is often helped by his family or the friends he has made there.

They create new relationships, they get used to the food, the customs, they become more and more comfortable with the language without necessarily understanding it very well. Other elements that can help them enter this adaptation phase are practicing a sport or a hobby or setting up a schedule that helps them structure their life. Taking language training or training in other skills is an excellent way to accelerate this adaptation.

What can companies do to help the spouse face the cultural shock?

The most important thing to do as a company is to include the spouse in the expatriation discussion before it begins. This will give the spouse the feeling that it is not his or her partner's expatriation but a joint project in which he or she is an actor.

Another point that can be easily put in place by the company and that will make the culture shock less intense for the spouse is simply to prepare him. Inform him/her that he/she is going to go through different phases, the things to do to make it go as smoothly as possible and answer any questions he/she may have.

It is important for the company to accompany the spouse before and during the expatriation and not to only take care of their employee. If the spouse is not happy with the rejection phase, the couple may decide to put an end to the expatriation.

Finally, a last element that can be put in place by the company to support the spouse, is to offer training. Whether it is for skills related to his initial training or not. Or language training to help him/her integrate into the new country.

Have you ever experienced the cultural shock ? How did you faced it ? Give us some tips or techniques you have found to overcome this cultural shock in the comments !

If you liked this article you might want to check out this one, and discover why you should recrute an atypical profile

This article is based on the book Managing Dual Career Expat Couples by Armelle Perben. If you want to learn more about this book check out this website.

And if you want to purchase the book click here.

Do you agree with us? Do you also find that the place of the spouse has gained in importance in the issues related to expatriation?

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