"[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns;
that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. ”
—Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Learning theory breaks learning into four phases:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
  2. Conscious Incompetence
  3. Conscious Competence
  4. Unconscious Competence

Disregarding that "incompetence" may be a rather harsh expression, lets us look at an example: Learning how to ride a bike.

  1. Babies don't wonder how to get from one place to another. They are always carried. For the longest time babies are not even aware that bikes exist.
  2. One day a bike turns up among the birthday presents, and you realize ever so quickly that you have no clue how to balance, let alone steer this monster. It is most embarrassing - and, when you find yourself in too close proximity with the ground, even painful.
  3. Pride sets in once you master the art of biking. You know that you can do this. But you still have to concentrate not to steer left when you look over the shoulder.
  4. At some point you ride so well that you don't even think about how you do this. (That is a good thing. If you were to analyze logically how to balance you would probably fall again.)

The graph shows how self esteem changes during the learning.

We are unconsciously competent in our home culture. We are so competent that we don't really realize what we are doing. It wasn't always like this. Ever since we were in diapers a big group of people have told us not to pick our noses, not to point at other people, to use Thank You and Please - all part of the indoctrination into what they thought was right and wrong and how to "behave properly".

When it comes to foreign cultures we are mostly in phase 1. While we live in our own culture it doesn't matter so much but moving to a new country the overwhelming extent of our ignorance becomes painfully apparent.

It is hardly a surprise that we don't cherish feeling ignorant. In phase 2 all students are frustrated regardless if they learn calculus, biking, a new language - or new customs. But once you succeed even a little in your new endeavor self esteem rises again.

Psychologists have anecdotally described a similar U-curve among people entering a new country 1, 2. Just like "the learning curve" it has four phases:

  1. Honeymoon
  2. Crisis
  3. Recovery
  4. Assimilation

Honeymoon: Everything is grand, you are like a tourist in your new home. There is so much new to look at, new places to go, exiting food...

Crisis: Your selfconfidence is gradually diminished as you realize that even the smallest things are different and you feel completely incompetent. You don't understand the language. You can't buy your favorite cereal. The drivers are totally aggressive/drive in the wrong side of the road/obey or disobey weird rules. The family wants to go home. The kids have no friends, and they don't like the food... Do I need to say more?

Recovery: Once you start mastering the practical challenges your confidence rises 3.
Now you just need to understand all these strange natives and why they behave so irrationally. This is the time to consider why Providence gave you one mouth but two ears: Ask for advise when you encounter something you don't understand. By listening to their explanations you signal that you are genuinely interested in learning about their country. Genuine interest is much more endearing than arrogance; if you think they are weird, what do they think of you?

Assimilation: As you pick up the hows, whats, and whys you have to chose to which degree you want to follow the local code of conduct. Perhaps you don't want to change, perhaps you change without noticing it, and perhaps you consciously change in some areas but not in others. More on this in the segment Cultural Adaptation.

If you experience depression and alienation after you have moved to a new country, you are not alone in feeling this way. Just knowing that this is a normal response to facing a mountain of uncertainty is a step in the right direction. Most other expats have felt the same way - even though they may show a brave face and don't advertise that they too, have felt incompetent for a while. If you solicit their help they will most likely be happy to lift your spirit and share their knowledge.

Being deeply into something mitigates the situation. If you moved as a diplomatic or company transfer, was hired as an expert, or just decided that you wanted to try out your luck in another country, hopefully you are confirmed in your professional competency and can use this as "deposits into your self esteem account". Your family members - who have fewer opportunities to shine if they don't work and have had their social network reduced to nothing - may see their sense of self critically diminished. Both the main transfer person and an accompanying spouse must understand that their experiences are not necessarily the same.