Thursday, 15 October 2015

Culture shocks from around the world, and what we can learn from them

Adapting to the local culture is a central element of life abroad. For many expats experiencing and learning about new cultures is one of the most enjoyable aspects of moving abroad. 

An inevitable part of transitioning to a different cultural environment is experiencing culture shock of some kind. Culture shocks can be anything from a small change in our daily routine, to something which might force us to dramatically change our behaviour. What might seem slightly amusing or unusual to us at first however, is often symbolic of long-standing cultural traditions and customs.

To reduce the magnitude of these shocks, learning about the heritage of your host country can help you to build your understanding of local customs. Over a third of respondents in this year’s Expat Explorer survey, stated the most important thing for them to feel at home was being able to understand the local culture and etiquette.

Here are some of our favourite cultural shocks expats submitted in last year’s Expat Explorer survey, and the stories behind them. 

Culture shock: “The pub culture” – French expat in UK
Creative Commons / DncnH
Background: The sight of a packed-out pub sprawling onto the road is no shock to those who have lived in the UK for a while, but can be slightly intimidating to newer residents. Pubs have been central to the culture of British socialising for centuries. Having first appeared in the Anglo-Saxon era, by the 16th century pubs were established as important spaces for people to converse, debate, and most importantly – drink beer in. With 57,500 pubs across the UK, and around 15 million people visiting them each week, pubs remain as popular as ever.

How to get involved: If you have just started a job in the UK, it is pretty likely that on a Friday after work you will be asked to go the pub with your colleagues - say yes! It is a great opportunity to talk your colleagues in a non-work environment.

Culture shock: “Kissing as a form of greeting” – British expat in France

Background: The French greeting of kissing on both cheeks, known as “faire la bise” locally, can be a bit of a shock to those with a general fear of PDAs (public displays of affection). However, this ritual is very important to French people, and holds a long-standing place in French culture. The number of kisses specifically given varies regionally across France and among different social classes, so be prepared for this change if you are travelling around!

How to get involved: Don’t be shy! However awkward you may feel at first, this practice will soon become the norm. Holding back on this ritual and not taking it seriously can be interpreted as a sign of insincerity to locals.

Culture shock: “Camel racing using robots” - Indian expat in Oman
Creative Commons / Flickr / Jane
Background: For a lot of us, robots and camels do initially seem like an unusual pairing. However, across Middle Eastern countries, it is symbolic of the coming together of older traditions and new technology. It is thought that camel racing has been a prominent part of Arabian culture since the 7th century as a national sport enjoyed by individuals from all walks of life. To address increasing safety concerns for camel-riding jockeys, after 2007, robotic jockeys took their place. 

How to get involved: Similar to horse racing in the UK, camel racing events are a big deal in Middle Eastern countries, and are a great opportunity to get to know some people living in your local area. Organise a trip with friends and join in the fun!

Culture shock: “Queuing” – Expat from Hong Kong in the UK
Creative Commons / Wikimedia
Background: Britain is renowned for its diplomatic and largely reserved culture; perhaps the essence of this comes in the form of queuing. Queuing is something Brits pride themselves on doing especially well. The Industrial Revolution, which brought a huge influx of people to cities and forced them to establish informal structures, is said to have sparked Britain’s ritual of queuing – and it something the country has been obsessed with ever since. It has been estimated that Brits spend as much as 6 months of their lives in a queue!

How to get involved: The golden rule of queuing is: don’t ignore the queue. Whether it is queuing for Wimbledon or the London underground, do so with style and grace. Cutting in will not make you any friends!

Allison Furlong told us in her guest blog post about the culture shocks she experienced when she moved from Canada to Qatar. Here are her thoughts on overcoming culture shock: “All in all, culture shock, in all its forms, is a fundamental part of international travel. And while it may cause a little frustration at times, the amazingly positive benefits of traveling and living abroad far outweigh the negatives. Have positivity and perseverance, and take the time to do a little research”.

Visit our hints & tips pages for more insights from other expats. To see how countries are rated by expats in 2015, visit our interactive tool.

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