It takes a lot of money to send an employee abroad: travel, accommodation, family resettlement costs. Yet for an embarrassingly large number of people it “does not work out”. They don’t function very well. A great adventure and a golden opportunity turns into a nightmare. Divorce, drinking problems, depression.....pretty grim legacy from what was meant to be a wonderful move.

Many organisations are happy to employee “the natives” at a junior level, but want tried and tested people from head office to go and “run the show”. They know how the business works and understand the culture. Their job is a sort of cultural franchising, or corporate colonialism. We need “our man” in charge who is happy to show the locals how it should be done.

The question then is whom to choose to go abroad. Is it to be seen as a punishment or a reward? Much depends on where you are sent, for how long and to do what. There are many dilemmas to be resolved. Should you send relatively young people who are fit and adaptable and can probably pick up the “local lingo”? What if they have a young family? And what if the spouse is not so keen? So why not send a silver-back alpha male on a “last tour” to improve the natives. But that could prove very costly....and perhaps there will be few volunteers.

My co-author Stephen Bochner attempted to classify individuals in terms of their psychological responses to the host country. He posits that there are four main ways in which people behave when in a new culture:

1) ‘Passing’ - Rejecting the culture of origin and embracing the new culture. The original culture’s norms lose their salience and the new culture’s norms gain salience. This type of mind set may be prevalent for migrants looking for employment that have come from war-torn countries and seek a new life.

2) ‘Chauvinism’ - Rejection of the current culture and exaggerating the original. The original culture’s norms increase in salience and the new culture’s norms decrease in salience. This can cause and increased feeling of nationalism for the individual and can lead to racism, and as a society cause inter-group friction. This type of mind set is increasingly rare, with people becoming more accepting of other cultures and religions.

3) ‘Marginal’ - Hovering between the two cultures, the individual is not certain of who he/she is. Norms of both cultures are salient but are perceived as mutually incompatible. This leads to mental confusion for the individual, over compensation and conflict and for the society causes reform and social change. Again this type of mind set is increasingly rare, with integration into a foreign society being greatly eased.

4) ‘Mediating’ - Synthesizing both cultures. This mind set is most ideal as it can mediate between both cultures. Norms of both cultures are salient and are perceived as capable of being integrated. This leads to the individual growing personally and society exhibiting higher levels of inter-group harmony and cultural preservation.

Over the last four decades the world has seen a substantial increase in multinational firms that have operations all over the world, and is therefore increasingly common for people from all backgrounds to work abroad. It is therefore crucial for organizational psychologist to study ‘culture shock’, to gain a greater understanding of the underlying mechanisms, so effective techniques can be implemented to reduce this negative experience as much as possible.

The problem of working abroad is the issue of adaptation—to the working conditions, the language, the food, the climate and the local customs. The issue is usually called culture shock. You can experience it even while on holiday

Culture shock’ was a term coined by the American Anthropologist Oberg (1960), he defined it as ‘a term used for early and profound negative experiences in a new culture’. The phrase implies that the experience of living (and working) in a new culture is an unpleasant shock, because it is highly unfamiliar and may lead to a negative evaluation of one’s own and/or the other culture.

Oberg suggested that culture shock is brought about sharply by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar cultural signs and symbols (e.g. words, gestures, facial expressions, customs and norms that are acquired in the course of growing up), and this can cause the transition into a new culture to be a disturbing and unpleasant experience. However some people will not experience the negative effects of culture shock (e.g. sensation seekers who will enjoy the highly arousing stimuli of the unfamiliar).

Culture shock has recognisable symptoms:

1. Strain due to the effort required to make the necessary psychological adaptations. Of having to listen more carefully, watch more intently, react more slowly. It is about being more self-aware and having to learn a whole new behavioural repertoire.

2. A sense of loss and feelings of deprivation in regard to friends, status, profession and possessions. Sometimes one’s status goes up but the loss of the familiar, the friendly ear, the people to shoot the breeze with can count for a lot when one is tired and fed-up.

3. Being rejected by and/or rejecting members of the new culture. It is unpleasant being an easily identified outsider, a target, a source of envy. Attributes are projected: wealth, (im)morality, values. Worse still if you really despise and dislike the natives.

4. Confusion in role, role expectations, values, feelings and self-identity. Indeed “what know you of England who only England know”. It can feel like being an adolescent again: exploring who you really are, and what you (let alone your company or your culture) stand for. What does it mean to be a man, a boss, a father? That's too much existential angst for an adult.

5. Surprise, anxiety, even disgust and indignation after becoming aware of cultural differences. To be confronted by people with different attitudes to everything from food to hygiene, truthfulness to stealing can be profoundly disturbing.

6. Feelings of impotence due to not being able to cope with the new environment. One may be deprived of a sense of humour as a result of the language difficulties. Dealing with all authorities especially professionals, and even “servants” becomes challenging.

It is all rather bad news. It means an emotional roller-coaster, feelings of total despair and powerlessness and often illness.

Culture shock doesn’t hit for a bit. There are well known phases in the process. First the honeymoon stage where everything seems wonderful. The people, the plants, the food seem exotic and enchanting. There is much to be admired in the locals who are so friendly and approachable. Then comes the crisis phase: suddenly things are not as clear as you thought, people are not honest with you, nothing works properly. You can’t ever get cool and there is no news of home.

But, with luck, this can lead to recovery and adaptation. You pick up enough of the language, the etiquette, the world view. You becomes sort of “bi-cultural”.

What does this all mean? It certainly helps predict when people are likely to require help and support. Not for a bit but three to six months down the line. And it partly shows how they might react. They often react most to different concepts of time, and straightforwardness. They talk of perfidious, two-faced, hypocritical, corrupt staff ...often meaning they have not really decoded the signals properly.

The question is who thrives best, where and under what conditions. Certainly some countries are easier than others. Multinationals, the Foreign Office and others often rank order countries on various dimensions such as corruption, infrastructure and climate. Some offer a “hardship” package if one has to live in a compound (ghetto) where at least some facilities are provide.

What about the individual? It helps if they speak the language or pick up languages well. It helps if they are clever, sociable and resilient. But most of all it helps if they have good social support. And this means a happy family. That is why selectors now interview the entire family when sending a senior person abroad. 

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

You are reading

A Sideways View

The Freudian Account of Leadership Failure and Derailment

What do Psychoanalysts have to say about how and why leaders fail?

What Men Desire in a Woman

What characteristics are men most attracted to in women and why?

The Psychology of Queuing

Why is waiting in line so horrid?