The Expat Adjustment Curve – And Why You Shouldn’t Go Home Just Yet

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Whether your plan is to relocate for a short time or long term, being prepared for physical and emotional upheaval makes the difference between a happy expat experience and a miserable one. The Expat Adjustment Curve helps you see where you are on your expat journey of discovery, and make the experience an enjoyable one.

My husband’s company paid for Relocation Training before we moved to Switzerland, and while we inwardly wondered what the point of this was as Germany and Switzerland are not so dissimilar, it was actually very helpful. If you can, I would highly recommend that you do one of these courses.

Basically, it is designed to give a general idea of the country that we are moving to, the mentality of the Swiss, traditions and customs. A large part of it focuses on business, but some of it was about private life too.

The trainer showed us a graph of the Adjustment Curve, the theory being that when you move to a new country you go through several periods of adjustment.

Phase 1 – Honeymoon
Euphoria, Energy, Differences seem minor, Host culture is new and exciting

 

Phase 2 – Initial Culture Shock
Increasing sense of confusion, Disorientation, Loss of energy

 

Phase 3 – Superficial Adjustment
Learning how to survive, Can function within a limited, familiar space

 

Phase 4 – Depression and Isolation
Losing touch with home culture, Awareness of deep cultural differences, Loss of self-esteem, Loss of support of family and friends, Feeling threatenend, withdrawl, depression, tension, fatigue, homesickness, Stereotyping and hostility toward host nationals

 

Phase 5 – Compensation and Reintegration
Developing coping behaviour, Less defensive, more accepting, Developing new infrastructure, More openminded, relaxed

 

Phase 6 – Autonomy and Integration
Learning to value cultural differences, Newfound self confidence

 

The curve rises and dips according to your feelings of the moment, eventually settling on a plateau at Phase 6. The phase which has the highest rate of expats returning to their own country, of “giving up” is Phase 4. The trainer stressed that it is important to recognise these phases, and that it is normal to feel this way.

When I looked back on my move to Germany, I could clearly see these phases and how I had gone past them. I was certainly on Phase 6 when I left Germany, fully integrated. At present I would say that I am on Phase 5 with occasional slips into Phase 4.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that expats have a tendency to say ‘Oh, in UK we do x’ when they discover differences. I’ve learned to be cautious about saying this as it can come across as negative, even if you think you are merely pointing out a contrast. It is also easy to fall into a spiral of negativity when speaking with other expats.

Living in a different country can be amazing or it can be awful, and some things you really can’t influence. How you approach the experience can however make the difference between being thoroughly miserable or having a wonderful time.

 

10 Comments on “The Expat Adjustment Curve – And Why You Shouldn’t Go Home Just Yet

  1. Good post and all very true. I’ve been in France now for so long that I can’t imagine living in the UK anymore.

    I agree that those who don’t settle are those who go home at every opportunity. And never underestimate the importance of learning the language.

    I’d also add that we should remain openminded to our new neighbours and try and mix with the local community rather than just the expats. There is so much to learn from the local people as they have been brought up with completely different expectations and cultural landmarks to us. It’s fascinating – and the local knowledge also help us settle in.

    • It is a good point, but I have to admit that we have not made many local friends. The transient expat community in Geneva discourages locals from making friends, as they know that we are only here for a few years. Having the children at local school definitely made a difference though.

  2. Enjoyed the article, I lived abroad as a child and UK was the foreign country to me, but gave me an insight into how my mother might have felt everytime we moved. Probably one of my very few regrets is that I never worked abroad myself.

    • Thank you, Helen. It is a great challenge, but also a great opportunity to see a different perspective of life.

  3. Having worked and lived overseas for a couple of years my husband and I used to laugh at the “typical” expats who are a world away from what you describe here. They had been in-country for years, were clinging onto a British enclave of senior management which was rapidly diminishing, and they scared the living daylights out of me.
    Weekend brunch at a 5* hotel is great, but not every weekend, and certainly not when you are going to bump into the same people every time. We hid out in our flat, smiled at the locals in our shop and learned the language (very) slowly.
    We didn’t put down massive roots and were delighted to come back to the UK but it was a good experience and now, a couple of years down the line, we look back fondly on all the things that drove us crazy at the time.

    • Yes, I know the kind of people you describe.

      It does depend a bit on where you are, of course. In Geneva it is highly possible to live like this, in a small Bavarian town, less likely.

  4. Really enjoyed this post Mme. I have been through it so many times, but its hard nevertheless. The important thing is to go out as much as you can and say hello to everyone. It makes you look friendly and approachable. I hibernated for my first year here, but I am determined to go out there and do things this year.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. I am discovering how many expat followers I have as they all pop up and comment on this post.

      Yes, getting out and about makes a huge difference. Even when you don’t feel like it, getting out there does help to lift the gloom.

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