Today, we’ll cover some of the basic theories or models of cultural adjustment that have been developed over time to explain the experience of expats and international students when they move abroad.
(This is a longer-than-usual post, but it’s full of information that I hope you’ll find useful!)
The ‘Curve Models’
If you’ve done any research on cultural adjustment, you’ve probably come across some version of the so-called ‘curve models.’ There are a few variations on these models (mainly using different names for the phases), but here they are in their basic form.
The so-called “U-Curve Model” (Lysgaard, 19551):
And the extension of the U-Curve — the so-called “W-Curve Model” (Gullahorn & Gullahorn, 19632):
(While their names are not exactly creative, they are at least descriptive.)
As you can see, the U-Curve Model is a bit more simplistic than it’s later revision, the W-Curve. The former assumes that following a period of culture shock, the expat goes through a rather linear process of adaptation, whereas the W-Curve Model suggests that culture shock may come in waves and that adaptation may not be such a linear process.
Spoiler alert: Research has shown that most people’s experiences do not conform to the highly simplistic U-Curve — and that even the W-Curve may not adequately capture the experience of many. But more on that later. These models still provide a useful heuristic for thinking about the process of adjustment.
Let’s take a look at each of the phases more closely. Perhaps you’ll recognize yourself in a few of them!
1. Preparation Phase:
Remember how excited (and maybe a bit nervous) you felt when you made the decision to move abroad?
And then do you remember how overwhelming it was to think about everything you needed to accomplish before you could leave?
Maybe selling your house or car, wrapping up your job back home, figuring out the appropriate visas (this aspect alone is enough to make most of us want to put our heads in the sand), figuring out where you will live in your new city… And if you have children, figuring out where they’ll go to school and making sure you have all the necessary documents for that.
If you were moving abroad for work, perhaps you were lucky enough to have some help from your company with some of this, but either way, it’s all a bit overwhelming!
Given how much there is to get done during this phase, most of your energy may have been focused on d0-do-doing rather than thinking and reflecting. You may not have had time to stand still long enough to let the reality of the situation truly sink in.
In some moments, this reality may have taken you by surprise, bringing up questions: “Have I/we made the right decision?” (or “Panic! What the hell was I/were we thinking?!”).
However, you somehow managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other, chipping away at the things you needed to accomplish, and then, next thing you know, you were on the plane…
2. Honeymoon Phase:
Everything is new and exciting and fascinating! It’s like being on an extended vacation or living in a movie.
Your head may be spinning, but living abroad feels so romantic, and the smallest things — like going to the market or having a cup of coffee in a little cafe — can feel like a grand adventure.
It feels so quaint and interesting that stores are closed on Sundays or that there’s a grève going on, bringing all public transportation to a complete standstill. It may be a bit inconvenient, but, hey, all the more time to slow down and enjoy a nice baguette sandwich in the park! Or ride bikes along the river!
For many expats, this is a happy, exciting time, full of new discoveries and adventures. (Although, as we’ll see later on, not everyone experiences the honeymoon phase.)
3. Initial Culture Shock (a.k.a. Hostility) Phase:
At some point, however, the initial excitement starts to wear off. You’ve begun to develop a bit of a routine, but all this change begins to take its toll. Newness and excitement may turn into frustration and stress.
It’s not so romantic when it takes 5 attempts to get a velo’V card because offices are never open when they say they’ll be. Or when the metro is shut down (yet again) because there is (yet another) grève. Or when you can’t find your favorite brand of toothpaste anywhere. (Not that I speak from experience or anything…)
How is it that everyone else seems to understand how things work when nothing makes sense to you? Doesn’t anyone know what a line is? Any why can’t anyone share the sidewalk or pick up after their dogs?!
You may begin comparing your new surroundings to your home country and missing the familiar, the comfortable, the easy. Everything just feels hard in this new country. You realize you miss all sorts of things from home that you took for granted before you left (like being able to go to the store for milk on a Sunday — not to mention being able to communicate with the store clerk!). You miss your friends and family back home — all of whom still seem to think you’re just having a marvelous adventure/extended vacation and don’t really want to hear about how hard your life is.
Doubts begin to creep in. You may start to wonder if this was all a big mistake.
Or maybe you think everything’s still going along fine, but you begin to notice some unexplained physical symptoms, like exhaustion, low energy, changes in sleep patterns, frequent colds, digestive problems, headaches, irritability, or difficulty concentrating. (Heads up: these are all physical manifestations of stress. And, as we discussed in the previous article, change — even positive change — is stressful, because it requires a lot of adjustment.)
This phase is sometimes called the “Hostility” phase, because — you guessed it — it can be characterized by feeling critical and hostile toward the new host country.
This phase can be especially difficult in couples, where one partner is from the host country and the other isn’t — or where only one is working and therefore has more of an automatic network than the other. There can be strain on the relationship, where one partner may feel resentful toward the other and the other may feel unfairly blamed.
Even in couples where both partners are going through the same adjustment process, they may have different pressure points and different coping styles, leading to misunderstandings and strain — and thus additional stress.
This is a challenging phase. What’s more, it’s not uncommon to vacillate between experiences that are more associated with the honeymoon phase (excitement, adventure) and this phase (frustration, discouragement) — resulting in a whiplash-inducing emotional rollercoaster.
3. Surface Adjustment/Initial Adaptation Phase:
Then, slowly, you begin to adapt.
Maybe you begin to learn the language. You start to experience a few successes. Things aren’t quite as romantic as they were when you first arrived (during the Honeymoon Phase), but you have your places you go — your local market, your boulangerie, your favorite coffee shop — and you begin to establish a sort of routine. It feels good.
You begin to make some new friends — maybe even some other expats who understand what you’re going through. They’ve been there. You feel a bit more understood. They offer helpful perspectives that allow you to see the humor in your frustrations or help you imagine how things can get better over time.
Maybe you also start to get to know some locals. You start to feel a bit more integrated into your new city or town.
Life starts to feel a bit more stable and manageable. You’re less easily thrown off by the practical details of daily life. You look back at the past few weeks or months and see how much you’ve learned, how far you’ve come.
You may start to think, “Phew! Thank goodness we’re through with that!”
4. Ongoing Challenges (a.k.a. Culture Shock, Round 2) Phase:
But, wait! Not so fast!
Just because you’ve managed to overcome some big hurdles, learned to communicate a bit better, and established some daily routines doesn’t mean you actually understand all the nuances of social interactions in this new culture. Or the bureaucracy. Or that you’ll know what to do when your kids start to struggle in a school system you don’t understand. Or that you know how to communicate effectively with your boss or coworkers. (Or that you’ll handle everyday stressors very well when you’re also dealing with any of the above.)
Whether people have actually read about the U-Curve model or not, many of us intuitively believe that our adjustment process will be a linear one. We imagine that once things start getting easier, they’ll just keep getting easier. That once we’ve cleared certain hurdles, they’re behind us.
Wrong! Enter round 2.
If you’ve already breathed a sigh of relief that the difficulties of adjustment are behind you, you may feel overwhelmed and discouraged when you encounter new challenges — or when you find that the same challenges are now taxing your ability to cope. If, on the other hand, you recognize that this is an up-and-down process, and there are bound to be waves of good times and bad as you move toward greater adjustment, you can see this for what it is: just part of the process. Remember: the story isn’t over yet!
5. Adaptation/Integration Phase:
Despite ongoing challenges, you begin to notice that the good times last a bit longer and the lows aren’t quite so low. You feel more and more competent — and confident. You recover more quickly from setbacks. You can handle them better. You can maintain perspective and recognize that this latest challenge too shall pass.
While not all of your initial acquaintances have blossomed into true friendships, a few have. You have a few go-to people you can make plans with.
While you still feel a bit like an outsider in this new country, you understand more and more how things work here. Or you can keep a sense of humor about it when you don’t.
You may not ever feel quite like a local, but you begin to feel like you belong in your own way. Life here is still different, but, little by little, it seems to work.
Limitations to the Curve Models
While there is some research to back these models up (at least in part), this research also shows that, for many people, the process of adjustment is not so linear and may involve many iterations of ups and downs. For this reason, some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that the models should be rejected altogether3.
Some theories have made predictions about how long each phase generally takes, but the research has shown pretty clearly that people don’t conform to a schedule when it comes to adjustment (surprise, surprise). What takes one person a month may take another 8 months. Or a year. There’s no real “normal” here, despite what you may have heard or read elsewhere.
Some people seem to skip whole phases (commonly the Honeymoon phase). Others may feel like they’re experiencing 2 or more phases at the same time — or fluctuating between phases multiple times in a single day or week, leaving them feeling disoriented and like the ground is moving under their feet.
Most often, phases 3, 4, and 5 don’t feel like such distinct phases. Many people experience a long process of ups and downs where the downs get progressively less extreme and recovery is faster over time until things slowly start to even out. Sort of like this:
Most experts have concluded that the models don’t really predict what any given person’s experience will be like but that they do still have some heuristic value. In other words, they may help people make sense of their experiences, but they shouldn’t be interpreted as gospel.
If you don’t fit the pattern — for instance, if you skip whole phases or seem stuck on a loop between 2 or 3 — that doesn’t make you unusual. In fact, you’re in good company. But the models still serve as a reminder that these experiences are part of an ongoing process and that we need to be patient with ourselves and not try to rush things.
(Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t take steps to facilitate your process — but more on that in a later article!)
Additionally, one thing that’s often left out of these models is the process of re-adjustment when people move back home after a period of moving abroad. We’ll take a look at this process in the next article in this series (coming tomorrow!).
What About You? Share Your Experience!
Do any aspects of this model resonate with you? Any parts not seem to fit?
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