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Managing Culture Shock for Employees in International Business Settings

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This paper explores the concept of culture shock as it relates to employees that are considering or have accepted an international assignment, as well as ways to manage its inevitable occurrence. As a motivated employee and potential candidate to relocate to another area of the world with my own company, I have examined how best to prepare myself for such a transfer. In the course of my research on the topic, I explored the psychological adjustment needed to adapt to a new culture in addition to the more practical considerations to be addressed. Through this research I have learned that such a move would have a much more significant impact than what I had initially expected to experience. I now know how to better prepare myself to manage the expected culture shock for such a cross-cultural transition. This research is a starting point for any individual considering this type of career move, and covers the symptoms, phases of adaptation, and a review of best practices for individuals, helping to make such sojourns – and potential repatriation – more successful. Keywords: culture shock, international relocation, repatriation
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Running head: MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 1
Managing Culture Shock for Employees in International Business Settings
Alison D. Kovaleski
University of Florida
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 2
Abstract
This paper explores the concept of culture shock as it relates to employees that are considering or
have accepted an international assignment, as well as ways to manage its inevitable occurrence.
As a motivated employee and potential candidate to relocate to another area of the world with
my own company, I have examined how best to prepare myself for such a transfer. In the course
of my research on the topic, I explored the psychological adjustment needed to adapt to a new
culture in addition to the more practical considerations to be addressed. Through this research I
have learned that such a move would have a much more significant impact than what I had
initially expected to experience. I now know how to better prepare myself to manage the
expected culture shock for such a cross-cultural transition. This research is a starting point for
any individual considering this type of career move, and covers the symptoms, phases of
adaptation, and a review of best practices for individuals, helping to make such sojourns – and
potential repatriation – more successful.
Keywords: culture shock, international relocation, repatriation
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 3
Managing Culture Shock for Employees
in International Business Settings
Research conducted in 2012 by Catalyst, a leading nonprofit membership organization
expanding opportunities for women and business, cited international mobility, or the ability to
accept and execute international assignments as one of the biggest reasons for career advance-
ment. In this study, the firm stated that “highly visible projects, mission-critical roles, and
international experiences are hallmarks of hot jobs” (Catalyst, 2012, p. 1). A significant factor to
be considered in such a sojourn is culture shock, which is “completely normal and is part of a
successful process of adaptation” (Marx, 2001, Ch.1), but often misunderstood and mishandled
by many individuals and corporations.
According to 2005 findings by the Mensana Intercultural Psychological Consultancy in
Great Britain, “placing a skilled executive overseas for a three-year contract can cost as much as
US$ 1 million” (Williams & Aghdami, 2005, abstract). These same findings also reveal that
numerous overseas sojourns fail, which “leads to premature repatriation” and that “the
psychological adjustment to the new culture is the ‘make or break’ of cross-cultural transitions”
(Williams & Aghdami, 2005, abstract). One can only assume that the cost has escalated beyond
the million dollar mark within the last eight years; thus, institution of a formal program to
address the inevitable culture shock and assist in managing the adjustment process would be
exceptionally prudent for monetary as well as personnel reasons.
Definition and Symptoms
The term culture shock is generally attributed to Kalervo Oberg, an anthropologist who
wrote extensively on the subject in the mid-twentieth century. Oberg (1960) coined the term and
compared it to a disease with its own symptoms, which progresses in various predictable stages,
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 4
and hopefully ends in recovery and adjustment to the new environment. Callahan (2010) warns
us that “this metaphor, however, is not universally accepted” and has noted that other authors
have “primarily defined [culture shock] as a feeling of disorientation or discomfort due to the
unfamiliarity of the environment” (Introduction, para. 1). Whatever its definition, it has been
recognized as a legitimate condition that deserves attention.
The symptoms felt by those experiencing culture shock can include feeling isolated
and/or helpless; experiencing anxiety and worry; reduction in job performance; and even
demonstration of high energy or nervous energy (Marx, 2001, Ch. 1). In her book, Breaking
Through Culture Shock: What You Need to Succeed in International Business, Marx (2001) also
summarizes what Oberg expressed as the six main aspects of culture shock in his 1960 article:
Strain caused by the effort to adapt
Sense of loss and feelings of deprivation in relation to friends, status, profession and
possessions .
Feeling rejected by or rejecting members of the new culture
Confusion in role, values and self-identity
Anxiety and even disgust/anger about ‘foreign’ practices
Feelings of helplessness, not being able to cope with the new environment.
(as cited in Marx, 2001, Ch. 1)
Additionally, culture shock can produce hopelessness, as the person has been uprooted
from their community, and this “rootlessness begets hopelessness” (Holba, 2008, p. 500). This
relates to the base reason for the subject condition, as it has been attributed to the loss of “our
familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse” (Oberg, 1960). Marx expressed it as “the
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 5
experience of a new culture…seen as an unpleasant surprise or shock – a shock that occurs when
expectations do not coincide with reality” (2001, Ch. 1). It makes sense that such major dis-
ruption to a person’s regular routine, along with a complete change of scenery, could result in
such feelings.
Many people think the experience of culture shock is usually “a 'short and sharp',
disorientating experience in a foreign place” (Marx, 2001, Ch. 1); however, if it is not properly
addressed, the effects can be deeper and last a considerable amount of time, disrupting both the
personal and professional life of the sojourner. Its effects can also extend to the business
environment of the transplanted employee in the host country.
As a manager having experienced two very short-term assignments in China in 2012, I
was only minimally exposed to this new environment. I did not have to make large adjustments
in order to adapt to the situation, as the period was less than two weeks for each visit. Still, I did
experience a bit of what is mentioned in the research, such as anxiety regarding the language I
did not understand and the food I was expected to eat, as well as the bathroom facilities I was
forced to use in some locations (the infamous, seatless “squatty potty”). I was given only a
glimpse of what to expect from that environment should I be assigned to a position in China in
the future. If it were to be for a longer assignment, I now know that I would need to consider a
multitude of other things in order to make the sojourn a successful one. Beyond the acceptance
of new foods and customs, I would also have to understand my need to completely embrace the
new culture in order to better adapt to the environment and ride out the culture shock I would be
bound to feel, and not fight against it.
Phases of Adaptation
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 6
The experience of culture shock has been accepted as completely normal and even
desirable, as it is seen as part of the successful process of adaptation for the employee. After the
existence of this shock is recognized, recovery and adjustment can follow as the person makes a
compromise between the original expectations for the environment and the new reality (Marx,
2001, Ch. 1). This concept is pictured in Figure 1 as the U-curve, which is based on the research
of Sverre Lysgaard (1955), although the drawing did not accompany his original work.

Figure 1. The U-Curve of Culture Shock
Retrieved from http://iwasanexpatwife.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/ucurve.jpg
According to Sussman (2002), “a key variable in predicting cultural adjustment has been
the degree to which an individual identifies with the home country and the host country; simply
put a sojourner’s cultural identity” (p. 392). For those who do not experience any culture shock,
and instead “generalize” their own views to the new culture, the adaptation process is usually
unsuccessful (Marx, 2001, Ch. 1). Therefore, it is important for the individual to embrace the
new culture instead of resist it, and willingly recognize and accept the transformative changes
that will help with the adaptation process. According to the author:
You have already won already won half the battle if you are aware
of the potential problems you are facing and have anticipated the
negative emotions. A review of your own reactions in difficult
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 7
situations and an evaluation of your emotional vulnerability will
give you an idea of how hard the culture shock may hit. Seeing
stress and culture shock as ‘normal’ also puts things into perspec-
tive. This can create a much more positive, ‘can do’ attitude.
(Marx, 2001, Ch. 2)
When the transition is not a permanent one, and a person works on a short-term
international assignment, a slightly different adaption model will apply, as shown in Figure 2.
This “Culture Shock Triangle” was developed by Marx (2001, Ch. 1) to consider how culture
shock affects people at three different levels during a non-permanent sojourn. Since the
temporary nature of the assignment does not allow for the same adaptation process of
honeymoon, crisis, recovery and adjustment as represented in the U-Curve, this model is more
effective in expressing the confusion and disorientation experienced by the sojourner as it
approaches from all angles. Each of the following levels needs to be considered and should be
accommodated in the transition plan for the temporary assignment:
Emotions – coping with mood swings
Thinking – understanding foreign colleagues
Social Skills and Identity – developing a social and professional network, and effective
social skills
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 8
Figure 2. The Culture Shock Triangle
(Marx, 2001, Ch. 1)
Whether the assignment is short- or long-term, “the same experience of the unknown is
present and similar reactions to personal issues and management situations will therefore occur”
(Marx, 2001, Ch. 1). Through her extensive research, Marx has also created a list of ten steps to
help minimize culture shock, as noted here:
Don’t let culture shock take you by surprise. Allow time to find out about it before you
leave for your assignment. Learn to recognize the symptoms and their potential impact.
Expect culture shock to happen irrespective of location. It is as likely to occur in a
country near to your home base as in postings further afield.
As soon as you arrive in your new location, identify all the opportunities for building
support networks with other international managers and with local people.
As with any stressful situation, fight it, don’t give in to it. So don’t resort to escapist
strategies such as drinking or eating too much and don’t deny your symptoms.
Ask other international managers for guidance on the issues and problems to look out for.
Learn from their experience.
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 9
Give yourself time to adapt and don’t rush into too many work-related projects at the start
of the assignment. Make sure that the organization gives you this time too.
Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if symptoms persist despite your coping efforts.
Help may be available within your company or externally through counselors or the
medical profession.
Expect the same symptoms to reoccur when you come home. Reverse culture shock is
normal.
Think about the positive aspects of culture shock – people who experience it adapt better
to their new environment than those who do not.
Retain a sense of humor!
(Marx, 2001, Ch. 1)
The Challenges of International Work
While it is important to understand the different cultural dimensions of management in
intercultural business situations, it is also important to remember that management is made up of
people who need to be developed at a personal level as well as a professional one. Human
emotion will come into play and oftentimes mixed feelings will need to be addressed. Job per-
formance can be affected by any anxiety and depression that may be experienced by an employ-
ee on a long-term assignment or permanent new role in a foreign country. These include the
practicalities of settling down in a different country with a new job and a new home; coping with
isolation and the stress of relocating a family; and unfamiliarity with how to accomplish the
easiest practical tasks, like shopping for groceries, obtaining a drivers license or registering a car.
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 10
While not specifically part of the business environment, these things will certainly affect the
employee with regard to their job performance (Marx, 2001, Ch.2).
As part of the consideration and acceptance of a foreign assignment, the employee should
be sure to receive a development package from the hiring company which consists of coaching
and support for an international role. If it is not initially offered, an allocation for counseling
support in the new culture can be negotiated. Oftentimes, corporations hire relocation companies
to assist with typical relocation services, but some of these companies have extended their
services from just transporting possessions to something that is much more comprehensive. They
can offer services such as work permits, visas and renewals; pre-departure intercultural
orientation and foreign language training; international transportation service; international
property management; international home sales and educational assistance (Marx, 2001, Ch. 7).
Changing Identity, Expectations, and Goals
As the sojourn continues, each person copes with their new situation and will likely
recognize changes within themselves. These changes can include very positive things, such as
greater confidence and diplomacy; more tolerance, patience and flexibility; increased
assertiveness and independence; and ability to better understand people with the increased
listening skills that have been developed (Marx, 2001, Ch. 4). While not a complete change in
identity, these experiences can have an effect on overall life values.
With improvement in communication and interpersonal skills, the expectations and goals
of each person can also change with regard to their career and overall life as a result of inter-
national work (Marx, 2001, Ch. 4). This invaluable opportunity to grow as an individual, which
is not afforded to many people, can be leveraged into a new career path. Alternately, an
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 11
unpleasant taste of this type of work can also change a person’s mind about a previously desired
vocation.
The Challenge of International Teams
As international teams are assembled, it is important to spend some time on the estab-
lishment of team processes. If the team members are not experienced and familiar with each of
the cultures represented on the team, some issues may arise. Communication skills are key to
overcoming and avoiding excessive stereotyping and creating an open environment for commun-
ication. Potentially the differences in cultures amongst the team members can become an over-
used excuse for poor team job performance (Marx, 2001, Ch. 5). If an expatriate is uncomfort-
able in the team setting for an extended amount of time, that person is more likely to fail in the
adaptation process. Therefore, the organization should employ team exercises to gauge organ-
izational and cultural perceptions, and conduct intercultural training as necessary to promote
harmony (Marx, 2001, Ch. 5).
Returning Home
Depending on the length of stay in a foreign environment, reentry difficulties may arise
for a sojourner upon the return home. Oftentimes, it is because the process is expected to be any
easy one, when it fact, it is not. The sojourner will likely have changed during the time away,
possibly with regard to new customs, language, dress or worldview. The original culture may
also have changed over that time period (Callahan, 2011, p. 317). Both the individual and the
corporation should expect and prepare for these changes, and be willing to work through the
reentry process. This was demonstrated in the W-Curve suggested by authors Gullahorn and
Gullahorn (1963), as the process of culture shock was experienced once again upon the return to
the home environment.
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 12
Figure 3. The W-Curve of Re-entry Shock
Retrieved from http://www.mythsdreamssymbols.com/images/w99hartf2.jpg
Marx (2001) states that the expectation of returning to a familiar environment coupled with the
realization that you have changed since your original departure are “probably the main factors
contributing to the feeling of alienation” (Ch. 6). Identity changes may be related to the
experience of returning home; Sussman (2002) proposes a Cultural Identity Model (CIM) which
“posits four types of post-adaptation identity: affirmative, subtractive, additive and global”
(p.394). People with an affirmative identity generally have low adaptation to the host country, as
the sojourn has reaffirmed their positive feelings for their home country. They would consider
the return a welcome event and have low levels of distress upon reentry. For those with
subtractive and additive identities, who both adapted well to the host country, the repatriation
distress may be high, but with different reasons for each group. The subtractives would feel
estranged from their home environment as if they have less in common with their compatriots.
For the additive identifiers, repatriation is more stressful because they freely embraced the host
country and may have changed to a higher degree and so experience more of a loss of the new
perspective they had gained. In the case of global identifiers, this group is often well-traveled
and has embraced the concept of being a member of multiple cultures, so repatriation distress
levels are low (Sussman, 2002, p. 394-95).
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 13
Summary
“International mobility” is perceived as a glamorous term by many who hear it, but just
as domestic travel for business is not all pleasurable, international assignments should not be
treated as exotic extended vacations, either. While the location may be foreign and intriguing,
there is still business to be conducted. There will be changes in the individual both during the
sojourn and upon the return to the home country. Proper preparation is key to making the move a
successful one for both personal and professional development. According to Marx (2001):
Despite the international expansion of many US businesses,
organizations are plagued by a high failure rate in their
international managers. This may be due to insufficient preparation
or the general lack of an international outlook. [This] failure rate in
international managers may change with a stronger international
orientation and better preparation of more managers. (Ch. 5)
Indeed, as more companies expand globally, the need for properly trained and
properly prepared employees will grow. The individual considering such a move
must take stock in their reasons for accepting such an assignment and understand
the culture shock they will likely endure. While adding international business
experience to a resume seems exciting, it deserves more attention to detail than a
quick scan through the global classifieds and a copy of a colorful, shiny brochure.
MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK 14
References
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A new theoretical model, which explores the relationship between cultural identity and repatriation experience, was tested among 113 American teachers who sojourned to Japan. Results indicated, unexpectedly, that overseas adaptation and repatriation experiences are not directly associated. Rather, home culture identity strength inversely predicted repatriation distress with repatriates experiencing high distress reporting weak cultural identity. Preliminary findings also indicated that repatriation experience is related to shifts in cultural identity. As predicted by the Cultural Identity Model, ratings of increased estrangement from American culture (subtractive) or feeling “more” Japanese (additive) following a sojourn are correlated with the high repatriation distress. Further, the more the global identity shift, the higher the life satisfaction. An innovative methodology was utilized in this study through the use of internet for participant recruitment and data collection.
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Going Home: Deculturation Experiences in Cultural Reentry Retrieved from http
  • C Callahan
Callahan, C. (2010). Going Home: Deculturation Experiences in Cultural Reentry. Journal of Intercultural Communication, (22). Retrieved from http://www.immi.se/jicc/
Managing Migration: The Applied Psychology of International Transitions Retrieved from http
  • K Williams
  • R Aghdami
Williams, K. and Aghdami, R. (2005) Managing Migration: The Applied Psychology of International Transitions. Journal of Intercultural Communication, (8). Retrieved from http://www.immi.se/jicc/
Breaking through culture shock: what you need to succeed in international business
  • E Marx
Marx, E. (2001). Breaking through culture shock: what you need to succeed in international business. [Books24x7 version] Available from http://common.books24x7.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/toc.aspx?bookid=4923.