One of the many perks of my job is that I meet a lot of remarkable people. I work with company expats mainly and usually a company sends only those abroad who have a good track record or promising potential. What I find even more interesting is the mindset of these expats and their families – most of them come into the training with an honest curiosity about other cultures, an openness to shift their perspective, and a growing number of them already have international experience. It is, quite simply, fun to talk to them, to listen to their opinions, experiences and expectations. While I’m there as the trainer, I do learn a lot from my training participants as well, which is not only interesting for myself but helps me to become a better trainer continuously.
I could go on praising my training participants, but that is not the focus of this article, though they do deserve praise and thanks for enriching my job and life. Still, it’s now time to get to the point here, after all I’m German and that’s what we do.
These expats are often in jobs where they need to make decisions, work independently, give guidance. They are used to having control. Then they move abroad….and things change, at least to some degree. In the beginning phase of living in another country one will hardly ever have the same amount of control and self-reliance as in the home country. It often starts with the language. Even if most people around you speak sufficient English, if you move to a country that does not have English as its native language, you will encounter the local language and people who only speak the local language. When my parents moved to Brussels for some years, my mother dreaded each visit from a repairman, for example. Try to explain to the electrician what exactly the problem is or what you want repaired – and try it using a language you only have basic knowledge of. If you manage that (maybe you wrote down the sentences in advance), try to understand the questions or explanations the electrician gives you – in that language you only have basic knowledge of.
Or go to the supermarket. This summer, I vacationed in Poland for some days. Visits to the supermarket turned out to be rather challenging. Yes, with most items you can see what it is, but the otherwise simple task of finding non-sparkling mineral water proved quite a trial without speaking Polish. Not knowing the local language is something that makes me feel helpless and even a bit inferior, even if I’m in that country only for a few days. It’s why I started to learn Hungarian (beautiful language, by the way!) after my first visit to Hungary (beautiful country, by the way!).
Not exciting enough for you? Fine, try managing simple tasks when you don’t know how and where. I once had a training with the spouse of an expat, a highly intelligent and educated lady who was very successful with her own business. She opened the door and the first thing she said to me was: “Before we start the training, please tell me where I can get my shoe repaired!” She later admitted that it was terrible frustrating for her not to know these simple daily things. I can’t blame her. It is frustrating suddenly being pushed down some steps on the self-reliance stairway, especially when self-reliance is very high on your list of priorities.
This is all part of the wonderful world of culture shock. In a later blog post, I will tell you a bit more about what culture shock is, what its stages are and how one can deal with it. Basically (in a very small nutshell!) it’s your reaction to living in different surroundings, not knowing how things work and not having your usual support network. While culture shock is a bit like taxes – usually unavoidable und not entirely pleasant – there are many factors determining its strength and impact. Some of these factors can be influenced by yourself and one of the most important ones is: don’t put additional pressure on yourself. When you taxes are due on May 31 (as in Germany) you usually don’t rush yourself to get them done by January 2, do you? (Unless you are Ned Flanders).
Still, I have training participants who get annoyed with themselves because they don’t know the language fluently or haven’t built up a wide network of friends after some weeks. One lady sounded actually angry when she told me “I have been living in Germany for five weeks now and don’t know German yet!”
The interesting thing was that she wasn’t even aware of her unrealistically high expectations of herself until we discussed it. She also shared that she is used to solving problems quickly, advancing quickly – being successful quickly. It was quite an emotional experience for her when I discussed culture shock with her and basically advised her to give herself permission to take some things slowly. One worry she had was also that her boss would disapprove of her not knowing German fluently yet (an honest conversation with that boss showed her that this was absolutely not an issue).
Another participant was aware that she was putting too much pressure onto herself, but didn’t know how to help it. The fact that the move into a new country left her without her large and close-knit network of family and friends was scary for her and she wanted to ensure a new equal network in the host country. Again, we were talking about a time period of 4 – 5 weeks . In that time period she had been very active, had done many excellent things to start building up this network. In fact, I was amazed how many things she had done in addition to doing her job extremely well. And yet, she didn’t feel as if she had been successful, while at the same time realizing that it takes longer than a few weeks to achieve what she wanted to achieve (and that she still had her home network – though through different channels).
I can understand the frustration of people in a situation like that. I have been there myself and if you look up “impatience” in the dictionary, there is a very large photo of myself glancing at my watch and tapping my foot. It easy to say “Well, just be more patient with yourself.” If one could change one’s mindset just like that, there wouldn’t be many problems in the world. Still, the approach is not completely wrong. You can’t change the situation, but you can change how you react to the situation. Sometimes, you need help with that (if so, book a coaching with me. Or someone else. But preferably with me, since you are already here 😉). But seriously – it can surely help to look at the situation and try to re-evaluate it, but sometimes it helps to find someone who can support you with this re-evaluation, whether it is a good friend, a coach, a book or a forum. There are no ready-made solutions, but individual solutions can be found. Be kinder to yourself is a good start in any case. Moving to another country is a stress situation. Positive stress maybe, but still stress. It is acceptable to not function at a 100 % immediately, it is acceptable to rely on others more than before, it is acceptable to give yourself a break wherever possible. Please don’t be your own pressure cooker, because if you are not kind to yourself, who will be?