Tips for beating culture shock

Moving abroad isn’t easy; you have to get used to a new environment, new people and a new way of life. While this can all be really exciting, it can also be full of cultural surprises which sometimes lead to homesickness and loneliness. This is what we call culture shock. So what should you do when culture shock hits hard and you want to take the first flight back home?

Remember: it’s totally normal!

Even the most open-minded and experienced travelers experience culture shock, so don’t worry; it’s not a sign that there is something wrong and you aren’t made for the expat life, it’s just a sign that you need to adapt to life in your new country.

You may think culture shock only really happens when you move from one continent to another (Europe to Asia for example), but even in neighbouring countries, the culture and way of life can be really different. Even if you have just moved across the border, don’t feel surprised or disappointed in yourself if you experience culture shock.  

Zack (a British expat in France): ‘I definitely suffered from…culture shock… simple day to day conversations, norms and even actions that I am used to at home aren’t normal in France’.

Learn some common phrases and cultural norms

Knowing how to communicate, even on a very basic level, will immediately make you feel more at home. Start with the bare basics, such as hello, please and thank you, but then try to learn some useful and common phrases, such as how to order a coffee, ask for the bill and ask a neighbour how they are.

Liv (a british expat in France): To start ‘it was extremely difficult to go outside and not be able to communicate with everybody and not understand everything that was going on around me’.

Learning some cultural norms can also really help you out when you are suffering from culture shock. Knowing how to greet someone in a social setting, for instance, will make you feel more comfortable in social situations. For example, in Spain people tend to greet each other by giving 2 kisses (one on each cheek), whereas in some parts of France it can be up to 4 kisses. In a lot of Middle Eastern countries, it’s typical to greet each other with a right-handed handshake (never left-handed as the left hand is considered unclean) and in Japan it is common to bow as a form of greeting. Knowing these little cultural norms can really help you fit in.

Don’t keep it to yourself

There’s no sense in hiding your feelings from your friends and family at home. With video and calling apps like Facetime and Skype, it’s so easy to stay in touch, even if you are on on the other side of the world. Don’t hesitate to make a quick call home if you’re having a hard time; your friends and family are there to support you.

Explore and meet local people

Whatever you do, don’t isolate yourself. Get out and explore your new country and meet new people. Try to go somewhere new every week, even if it’s only a couple of blocks away from where you live. This will help you get to know your new home and meet local people who can teach you about their culture. The sooner you make friends, the sooner you will feel at home and less lonely.

Millie (a British expat in Spain): ‘When I first went out for tapas, the waiter was so nice. He let me try and speak Spanish with him even though I am nowhere near fluent. I felt lonely the first few days…but everyone was so nice and I got over the loneliness very quickly!

Don’t rush it

Don’t expect to get over culture shock immediately; you can’t adapt to your new life from one day to the next. Culture shock typically has four stages and you can’t just skip to the end.  It’s okay if it takes months to get used to your new life, eventually you will adapt and feel right at home.

Kate (a British expat in Panama): I suffered from culture shock for the first few months as ‘Europe is much more advanced than Panama in a few ways…but I have gotten used to it’.

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