Management & Organization

How to avoid culture shock when on a foreign assignment

When stationed abroad isn't something you should dive into without having considered it thoroughly first. If you're going with your family, it's very important that you and your family agree that a stationing abroad is the right choice for you. The thought of a foreign assignment is often a decision that requires some getting used to. So talk it through well before the stationing. If possible, preferably before the actual offer is on the table, because these offers often arrive with short notice.

Before leaving

When the family agrees that a foreign assignment is the right thing for all of you, it's time to begin the preparations:

  • If you already know the destination of a possible stationing before the offer is made, it could be a good idea to do some research on this destination during the initial considerations with the family. Examine things such as:

    1. Culture and local customs different from your own. How formal/informal are interactions between friends/acquaintances? How do you get around across the country? Do everybody drive a car or is public transportation the common method of transportation? Is it possible to ride your bike to work? Etc.

    2. If you have children who are in school: Research the local schools. How is the teaching (formal/informal)? What about the workload (homework)? Do they call the teachers by their first name or is it Mr. and Mrs.? Etc.

  • Set goals for what you, personally and your family as a whole, wish to get out of this assignment. What is important for you to make the experience good and fruitful?

  • I possible, hire a coach who's an expert on expatriates and who's able to help you and your family with the transition from a life back home to another life in a more or less unknown country.

Upon arrival

  • Check out the local community.

    1. Where is the children’s new school? Visit it.

    2. Where are the closest grocery stores? The nearest/best restaurants and cafés? Museums, theaters, the zoo, etc.

    3. What's the easiest route to your new workplace? Visit it and maybe bring your family.

  • Spend the first period of time focused on building a good network in your new city. Don't be afraid to ask for help or say: “I don't understand this”. Most people want to help, and giving and receiving help is also a big part of strengthening relationships to the people around you.

  • Be aware of how you communicate. Cultural differences will definitely make it more difficult to deliver your message. Be clear and expressive and always make sure that you listen carefully to your new acquaintances.

  • Be positive and look towards the future. A negative, backwards-focused behavior will transmit to your family and make it harder for all of you to adapt to your new surroundings.

  • Before you left, you listed some goals for your experience together. When you arrive, go through these once again and add some smaller goals (daily, weekly, monthly) that'll help you achieve the larger goals.

  • Accept that confusion is an inevitable part of the experience. Luckily, it'll get better with time.