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

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.