Friday, 14 January 2011

Expert Excellence featuring Stephanie Katz

In the third instalment in our Expert Excellence series, we have Stephanie Katz, editor of on dealing with culture shock.

Culture Shock: from the inside out

Expats often underestimate the challenges of culture shock, and even those who've mastered adaptation are often unprepared for the adjustment the expat bubble itself demands.

A glazed stare, withdrawal, excessive sleep, overeating, under-eating - these aren't side effects of some ill-fated psychosis, but believe it or not, symptoms of culture shock.

Sure, not every expat assumes zombie status post-arrival in the their new location, and each may find different degrees of homesickness and feelings of helplessness defining their transitions, but ultimately, this hurdle to adjustment is often much higher than most anticipate.

In fact, results from the 2010 Expat Arrivals (EA) Art of Relocation Survey showed that when participants were asked just what factor they'd "wished they'd known more about" in hindsight of their move, the biggest proportion cited "Overcoming Culture Shock" (46.7%). Five other factors, ranging from "Arranging a Visa/Work Permit" (24%) to "Education and Schools" (13.3%) received considerably less attention.

Rightfully so, the shock of moving to a new country can cause immense anxiety and frustration. Depending on just how different a new location are the day-to-day experiences, simple tasks and normally low-maintenance logistics can be clouded in confusion and consternation.

What's more, even though loss of routine and general disorientation can certainly be dizzying realities that often leave expats spinning, challenges created by an external environment aren't the only source of culture shock.

Life inside the bubble

For many western expats, life in even the strangest of destinations can be lived in a self-contained sphere of cultural familiarity. It happens most commonly when foreigners perceive an uncrossable cultural barrier and in response create an isolated expat community to regain a sense of control over their cultural environment.

These expat bubbles are commonly represented by physical space - expat compounds in Saudi Arabia, homats in Japan, or secure, gated communities in Nigeria. It follows that these shared spaces then act as a platform for a social subculture; a place where expats search for the lowest common denominator and form friendships accordingly.

Subculture shock

In destinations where insular expat communities are the norm, the effect is a close, tight-knit network. Most social interaction is within the group, most expat families send their children to expat schools and, in some cases where the subculture is especially strong, the community takes the place of family.

Though this system can be supportive at first, it can also become potentially poisonous.

In a sense, intensely insular expat communities can transform into "golden ghettoes". Feelings of insecurity and notions of being completely removed from the world in which you live may be more apparent than ever before.

Unlike immigrant societies, which are “secluded”, expatriate communities are “exclusive,” writes Eric Cohen in 'Current Sociology', in that they close off or exclude an authentic experience of local life and its people.

This disconnectedness can begin to feel deliberate, even if it isn't; guilt can get the better of even the most stubborn expat, particularly when so much affluence resides inside the compound walls relative to the standards of living outside.

Furthermore, interactions within the bubble can become blasé, and expats may come away feeling their environment has turned too one-dimensional. In some extreme instances, there are those that would describe their relocation as a period in time in which they felt trapped.

Bursting the bubble

There are plenty of simple steps to waging war against standard culture shock, but when it comes to digging in and doing battle against the ill-effects of these insular communities an alternative approach is often needed.

In conjunction with culture transitions strategist Heather Markel and Intercultural Trainer Anna Maria Moore we've come up with a few key ways to burst the expat bubble.

stay updated on current events so you can speak intelligently with locals

show curiosity, interest and allow locals to express their opinions

continue to learn the language, no matter the sacrifice it requires

be willing to meet and mix with locals in even in the most basic of situations

Often expats entering into an insular community have little choice upon initial arrival, but finding little outlets and making sure that you don't feel boxed in and boarded up can be the difference in overcoming culture shock or sinking completely.

About the author

Stephanie Katz is the editor of, a site that publishes over 100 online destination guides to help global expats plan their move abroad and optimize their lives on arrival. City-based experts works with the editorial team to produce key content sections. If you’re interested in becoming a local expert contact, please visit their site.

1 comment:

  1. I can totally relate to this post. The Western/American bubble is all-too apparent here in Yerevan, Armenia, where my husband and I work as teachers at an international [American curriculum, all English-language] school. Many of our students are children of diplomats and embassy personnel, live in a suburban-style gated community outside the city, and bring their home cultures (including American toys, clothes, foods, movies, products, lifestyles, and expectations) with them everywhere they go. It's not their fault, and it's not completely bad, of course, but it becomes very difficult for these kids to appreciate or take advantage of the opportunities they have in terms of experiencing a NEW language, culture, making friends outside of school, etc. Last year a teenaged student of mine who had lived here for 3 years was preparing to return to the States. When I asked him what he would miss most about Armenia, he could name only events he had experienced and people he had met through the school or embassy. In all his time here, he had never once taken a ride on Yerevan's modest but efficient subway system -- let alone used any other form of public transportation -- since he went everywhere in his family's SUV. Honestly, I felt sorry for him. He had become a permanent outsider, never assimilating with local kids, and never choosing (or having the choice) to experience the "real" Armenia.


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