I know I am going to stay in a foreign country for longer. I know what to roughly expect. I am excited and happy but also nervous. That is normal. But, how do I prepare myself for the inevitable culture shock? How do I stop any emotional irritation? Do I do a lot of reading and research about the new culture? Do I already start learning the language? Do I try to find friends on the Internet?
How should I prepare?
This all sounds tempting and is not wrong. However, very often it’s not really helpful. Language learning is much easier in the country – unless I know already that I barely have time to do it once I am there. Books and articles about the country and the people may remain abstract and lifeless. No, in some ways the opposite is true: Know exactly who you are, where you come from and which story you can tell about your family and your people!
The goal is as follows: A culture shock is an irritation of the feelings and the values that I got from an early age on. This irritation is subliminal and subtle, I do not really understand it, as I have (mostly) never thought about the feelings and values of the society I grew up in. And that’s what I should do to prepare myself for the inevitable confrontation with the strange new culture.
Ask yourself: How are we? What distinguishes my family and my people? Are there any particularities? Which phases in our history have been extreme, very good or very bad, and why? Such questions I should ask myself and be able to answer.
An example: I am a German and abroad I constantly encounter two phenomena: Firstly, nazism and thus the period from 1933 to 1945 and, secondly, the relatively strong German economy and the high standard of living associated with it. So I have to deal with it and ask me: How do I handle it when people say that Hitler was great or envy the German economic strength? With respect to culture I run again and again into problems that we Germans can be very direct and don’t handle well formal politeness.
About all these things I can ask friends and discuss with them before I go. But be careful: Not everybody likes to discuss these issues and many will only be ready to do this one or two times. Then the train has departed.
There are many books on THE German, THE French or any other nations that might be helpful. They must be treated with caution – see stereotypes and prejudices – but especially when you read about your own culture and mentality, the risk is low, to fall into stereotypes. You may not agree with everything that has been said or even be offended. Nevertheless, these books are helpful.
Concrete, some hints for a proper preparation:
- A short vacation trip into the country before the move may cause miracles. You enter as a tourist, you go back and you have time to discover differences.
- Do not read and study too much about the new country and the mentality of the people. A bit may help, but most will only do when you are in country.
- It’s good to know the history of your own country, especially with respect to the new host country. Germany and Tunisia have relatively little common history, but the little one should get to know. France and Tunisia have a lot of common history, it is necessary to know the most important things.
- Know yourself: It may sound strange, but it is important. Am I a typical German or a typical Frenchman or what is special about my biography?
- Talk with friends and family back home about the move and how to keep in touch. This is nowadays very simple but very important. How is it going? This can be done with newsletters, an online blog and also ask for feedback. The better I can describe my experiences, the better I’ve mostly digested.
- Plan and organize as simple as possible, the lest complicated you can do! Everything that is complicated is bad. Life becomes complex on its own, especially abroad. If you are in doubt, leave things at home and take them later or let others bring them in!