Cultural Adaptation

While we live among our "own" kind, most of us normally don't think that much about what characterizes our culture. We don't reflect on whether we shake hands, shake hands only with people of our own gender, kiss, nod, or whatever greeting is the norm; we don't wonder why we decorate our homes this way or that, why we dress this way or that, how we speak and write. All these and numerous other teeny details become more apparent once a similar behavior can't be taken for granted among the people surrounding us.

That there are several "proper ways to behave" in the same situation is taxing. Then we have to decide if we want to behave like we used to or if we want to behave like the people around us.

When our cultures clash we adjust in one of several ways 1:

  • The first possible outcome is that we follow the old adage "When in Rome, do like the Romans." We embrace the new culture and to some extent denounce our roots. Many immigrants in the 19th century followed this path. Now we are Americans, our children must learn the new language and not the old; we will change our names so they sound American. (Let us not ignore the pressure from the society to assimilate - not all name changes were voluntary. 2)

    You could call it the -/+ model, out goes the old and in comes the new. The Statue of Liberty bears the inscription "Bring me your tired, your poor huddles masses..." If your old country symbolized hunger, pogroms, or poverty perhaps the wish to honor it was only so so? It is my impression that the idea not to let your past alone define your future still holds strong among Americans.

  • The opposite situation, +/- , is to become even more aware about one's own culture and become more reluctant to change. This reaction is common among people who know (or hope) that they are only staying for a short while. Feeling that "your way" is under pressure, you defend it even more rigorously.

    Taken to the fuldest this attitude may lead to isolation and disdain for the new country. Our values are an integrated part of our identity. If we feel we would compromise them by adapting to the local norms we get rebellious rather than lose our sense of self. Because central values are under threat we may refuse to change in any way at all, even though other areas may be non controversial. There may be aspects of society where we have nothing like that in our home country. We refuse to even consider them worthy of our interest. It becomes a bit like when teenagers make decisions - anything but what the parents say.

    I hardly need to point out that this neither makes for a good visit, nor will this attitude endear you to the local population. There is only to hope that tolerance and empathy are strong values among your hosts.

  • It is even more tragic when people lose their home culture without embracing the host culture, the -/- situation. Some times people feel like this when they move back to their old country. They never really thrived abroad, but after having seen other parts of the world they realize, that some aspects of their home culture can be petty and narrow minded. People who have not realized that they have adapted somewhat to their host culture are most at risk for ending up in this group.
  • Finally there is the +/+ situation, where you can enjoy the strengths of both cultures and can feel at home in both countries. People in this group either switch between the cultures depending upon where they are and whom they interact with, make a hybrid that is neither this nor that, or they pick and chose the parts of the cultures most aligned with their own values.

In some countries there are expat communities with only little need for interaction with the host population. Some countries have areas with an ethnic subculture. In such areas the culture can be way different than the one prevalent in the host country and perhaps you have to adjust to not one but many new codes of conduct.

To navigate the challenge of multible conflicting cultures professional expats among diplomats or military personnel - who typically only spend few years on each post and often live within a designated area - often develop an expat culture that has little tie to any specific country.

"Normal" expats who live among the local population often find a similar attraction towards other transplants or towards locals who themselves have lived or studied abroad. Even students returning from a semester abroad share how they now seek out friends among exchange students on their own campus or feel more at ease with other students who also have lived in another country.

If you can, try to find friends among locals who have lived abroad. They know what you are going through and may have a higher level of insight into what are the central elements of the host culture. And if you move back to your home country, pay it forward.