Living abroad has many different charms and challenges. Being confronted with a new culture, new people and possibly new languages can both be exciting and overwhelming. No matter how near or far you have moved away from your previous home, you will most likely notice a difference between your old and your new life.
Some people find it easy to adjust to their new environment, whereas others struggle with adjusting and finding a sense of home. Some expats face problems related to moving, such as homesickness and finding new meaningful daily activities. Other expats are confronted with problems they have had for a long time, such as dealing with depression, anxiety or self-esteem issues.
Even though everyone handles the adjustment to a new country in their own ways, there is a cycle of change that almost all expats go through before really settling in and feeling grounded. According to the U-Curve Theory of Adjustment (Lysgaard, 1955) all expats go through four stages of adjustment:
The first stage is the honeymoon phase, where expats see their new country through rose-tinted glasses. The mindset they adopt is like that of a tourist: everything is new and exciting and people are keen to explore their new environment.
2. Culture shock
When the newcomers have to deal with real conditions on a daily basis (setting up house, possibly finding a job, building a social network, language problems), the second stage kicks in: culture shock. This stage is characterized by feelings of isolation and frustration and can also trigger physical (stress) symptoms. In some cases, the feelings expats experience are similar to symptoms of depression.
The third stage is the adjustment stage, in which the expat is gradually adapting to the new country and is able to act more appropriately. For some people during this stage there is a tendency to ‘compare to complain’: while settling in there is a constant tendency to compare the new environment to the life they had before.
In the last stage, which is called the stage of mastery, the expat is able to function effectively in the new culture.
The duration of the cycles most expats go through differ greatly from person to person. The average time to adjust to a new culture (and go through all of the stages) is thought to be around nine months. It is very common for the joining spouse to experience more difficulties in adjusting than the working expat, since the working expat is more likely to be engaged in work while the spouse has to deal with more of the daily troubles of running a household.
Want to learn how to cope with this cycle of change? Read our next blog!