How to Survive Culture Shock When Moving for a New Job

Worldwide, work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfillment for nearly 90% of the world’s workers. To explore better work situations, many people decide to move to a different place. For people with spouses and children, this means disrupting life not just for the relocating employee or business owner, but for everyone in the family. Is it possible to accomplish this in a way that keeps everyone happy in the end?

Anne Gillme, Expert on Culture Shock To discuss this topic, I invited Anne Gillme from Expatriate Connection to answer some questions. Anne became interested in the topic of relocation after moving several times to various countries to pursue job opportunities for herself or for her husband, each time with their four children in tow. Originally from France, she has lived in Germany, Belgium, and now Australia.

Anne runs Expatriate Connection to help people deal with culture shock and the emotional impact of international moves on all family members. Expatriate Connection provides tools and inspiration to deal with the stress and reap the rewards of relocation. Her advice is helpful whether you plan to move 100 miles or halfway around the world.

Anne, what are the main factors affecting each family member when you move?

Moving causes grief. This might sound overly dramatic as we usually think of grief for the death of a loved one. However each change, even positive, involves loss and gain.

Before fully appreciating the gains, you need to process the losses. It’s this healthy process that’s called grief.

As Mark Twain said, “Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion, a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.”

Moving triggers two types of losses: definitive loss and ambiguous loss.

Examples of definitive loss include the sale of a house or resignation of a job. Whatever the future holds, you won’t have the same house nor the exact same job ever again. The situation is clear, even if painful but there is closure possible.

Closure doesn’t happen for the other type of loss: ambiguous loss. Leaving friends, colleagues and extended family behind is a typical example. They’re not present any longer in your daily life but they’re still alive, in your thoughts a click away on the Internet or on social media.

Pauline Boss, a therapist who has studied ambiguous loss for 30 years, says, “It feels like a loss but it’s not really one. This is what makes it so stressful.”

This confusion makes people feel stuck. On one hand, they’re sad and frustrated because they miss family and friends. Moreover, they often have to repress those feelings because they feel guilty to complain while they made the decision to leave. On the other hand, they enjoy the excitement of a new life or an interesting job without having to put up with whatever bad things they left behind.

How do you know you’re grieving?

Physical symptoms include body pains, crying, disturbed sleeping patterns, eating problems, lack of energy, chest pressure, and sweaty palms. Emotionally, you may feel sad, anxious, frustrated, angry and/or guilty. You may numb your emotions to protect yourself from acute pain.

You may be tempted to withdraw from social activity and regret your decision to move.

Each person grieves in his/her unique way. There is no prescribed time frame or time limit in this process.

It may be even harder on the accompanying partner and the children who didn’t really have a choice but to follow. Boss says the impact on an individual can ripple out and affect the whole family. Family members can become so preoccupied by loss that they withdraw from each other.

What can you do to deal with the grief in a healthy way?

1. Inform yourself about grief and share the information with your loved ones.

2. List your losses and discuss them together.

3. Validate each other’s feelings without dismissing, ridiculing or repressing them. If not, you’ll only intensify them.

Keep in mind the motto of grief specialist Therese Rando, “What grievers need most is acceptance and nonjudgmental listening.”

Another factor of importance in a move is culture shock.

Relocating from a village to a city or moving interstate or overseas will involve a change of culture. Whether it’s a subculture (when you stay in the same country) or a totally different culture, you’ll experience culture shock.

In the 60s, renowned anthropologist Kalervo Oberg described culture shock in four stages:

1. Honeymoon
When you first come to a new place, you’re excited by the novelty of your surrounding. You’re curious to discover and to explore. Like in love at first sight, you see life with rose-tinted glasses.

2. Crisis
When dust settles, you start to perceive the differences and to face reality with its positive and negative aspects. You compare with what you’re used to… and you despair. You become angry and resentful when you struggle with administrative delays, communication problems, lack of familiar food, and climate vagaries.

3. Recovery
Little by little, you find ways to adapt and you develop coping skills.

4. Adjustment
This is the stage where you develop a sense of belonging in your new community.

It’s important to mention that you may NOT experience ALL those stages – you may skip the honeymoon stage, for example, if you’re coming to a new place against your will. In some cases, you may even go through the stages in a different order.

What can you do to make this process go more smoothly?

1. Be prepared to deal with stress.
You may want to learn or apply relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. Make sure you get enough sleep. Avoid excessive use of alcohol or self-medication.

2. Communicate effectively.
This includes paying attention to verbal and nonverbal cues, getting information on local customs, and being flexible and curious.

3. Realize that moving will challenge your identity.
You may want to think about how you define yourself to new acquaintances: through your professional activity, through your family role, and through the country/city/state you’re coming from.

What are the challenges experienced by the accompanying partner?

Accompanying partners are vulnerable: they very often give up their job and lose their support networks in the move. They become the natural resource to pick up the slack while the working partner is drawn into his/her new function. In some cases, they don’t have the opportunity to find another professional activity because they lack a work permit / visa or recognition of their professional qualifications. In other cases, they have to find work, a highly demanding task in the current troubled economic situation.

The lack of professional activity is often a deal breaker in the morale of the accompanying partner leading to loss of self-confidence, loss of self-esteem, and financial dependence. Without support, depression looms.

Relocation Culture Shock

If you’re the employee or business owner who precipitated the family’s move, what can you do to support your accompanying partner?

Lending an attentive ear is always a priceless gift to your partner, even more when he/she has few adult conversations during the day. Listening is even more important than trying to problem solve, which is particularly challenging for men because they are so tempted to fix problems. Remember, your full attention and your empathy are essential AND enough..

How can you help the children?

Children are also affected by culture shock and a grieving process. The latter is particularly important to keep in mind. Psychologist John Bowlby said children age four and up mourn in similar ways to adults.

If children sometimes seem forgetful and insensitive, it’s because they live much more in the present.

Children grieve like adults but they’re more vulnerable because they’re dependent on grown ups to make sense of their new reality. They don’t have access to the same amount of information.

There are three golden rules for supporting them.

Rule #1: Be fully present – physically and mentally – as often as you possibly can. Paramount is listening without judging, arguing, or denying. Ask questions when you’re not sure but encourage anger, frustration, sadness, resentment to get out. It’s so important. Bottled feelings intensify before exploding… sometimes decades later!

Rule #2: Outline what’s changing and what’s not.
Children need stability and continuity. Don’t hesitate to state even the obvious. You may have a list with two columns and place pictures of what’s going to stay the same and what’s going to change. For example, you’re changing houses but you’ll always have breakfast together.

Rule #3: Explain what grief is.
Take this opportunity to teach your children a lifelong coping skill because life is also a succession of losses.

Finally, don’t forget yourself. You’re a role model. Children do what you do, not what you say.

What happens when you come back?

When you move to a new place, you’re experiencing culture shock. When you come back, you face “reverse” culture shock.

This is the first surprise: people who have repatriated mention that it’s more difficult to go back to your original country than moving abroad!

You think you’re going back home and it’s going to be easy, right? Well, think again.

Why is it harder to come back?

There is a huge gap between your expectations and the reality. You think you know the country, the culture and the language, so you expect to adjust quickly and easily.

But you have changed.

A friend of mine went to the local supermarket of her hometown in Germany and was waiting for the cashier to put her groceries in a bag like is usual in Australia. She got told off because she was daydreaming instead of packing.

You can’t pretend that you’re a foreigner! Sometimes, people were more understanding when they spotted your accent or looked at your face. You were clearly not from there. Now, you’re a hidden immigrant!

The country has changed. You need to identify what has changed and sometimes it takes lots of concentration and energy to pick up what’s now different.

Your relatives and your friends have changed. They moved on with their life while you were away. Very often, you realize that they’re not interested in your stories. A friend of mine mentioned that she had to hide her expat life in general conversations because people couldn’t relate.

You’ll still have to deal with grief: the loss of your expat life.

Reverse culture shock is still a kind of culture shock. So you’ll experience stress, communication issues (think about non-verbal cues!), and identity conflicts. Who are you? For example, if you are American, you seem to be a “normal” American but you’ve got another worldview and experience than the average citizen who never lived away from his country.

So what can you do?

Consider repatriation as another new expat assignment. Consider yourself in discovery mode. Change your perspective and play the foreigner in your own country!

Make expat friends to cultivate the diversity of worldviews.

How does it sound? Ready for the challenge?

This is very helpful, Anne. Thank you!

Have you ever moved for a job? Please comment below or share on social media.


Anne Gillme founded Expatriate Connection, a free online resource for helping expats deal with loneliness, expat grief, and uprooted children. To build a supportive online expat community, she runs video-based peer support groups for trailing spouses. The next group starts in February, 2015.

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