Features, Opinions

What does it feel like to move to a new country to live and work? Maybe understanding that is key to helping new colleagues adjust to an unfamiliar working environment and ensuring they feel properly included and comfortable about giving their best. Lucie Jones, Executive Paralegal at EIP, has written this amazing blog post for us based on her experiences of working in Japan; it nicely incorporates thoughts and feelings from other EIP colleagues who have moved between countries to work.

Lucie writes:

Living in a brand new country is often seen as an amazing experience, opening new views on the world, experiencing new culinary sensations, discovering beautiful places and a fascinating culture. But the initial excitement can progressively give way to a less pleasant experience, from a dull sense of frustration to sometimes a feeling of being completely lost in the world. This is completely normal and even has a name: “culture shock”.

According to Google Dictionary, the definition of culture shock is “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes”, although I prefer my colleague Liz Arcus’ interpretation of it: “you totally experience a roller coaster of emotions and feelings”. The term was first coined by the Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in 1954. It is commonly described as consisting of four stages. Let’s call them honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance. And then there is the reverse culture shock, when you go back to your home country, thinking it will be easy to settle back until you realise you are going through all four stages again!

Obviously everyone experiences culture shock in their own way. The stages can have various durations or intensities; they can follow each other in a different order; some of them can be skipped altogether. But this guidance can be incredibly helpful when you are in the throes of the frustration stage or even if you just want to prepare yourself for a big move.

IP being an extremely international field, we all know someone who comes from another country and might have experienced this themselves. I asked my colleagues at EIP to share their stories. So let’s explore the stages of culture shock and how they can affect us IP folk.

1. The Honeymoon Stage

This is the initial trepidation of moving to a different country. Everything is new and exciting.

Hamish Popplestone, CRM and New Client Coordinator, moved recently to the UK from New Zealand. His first impressions were really positive: “In the initial first few weeks of being here, I found everything so familiar (banks, supermarkets, utilities etc.). My mind blew when I discovered Amazon and the option to ship overnight, rather than the standard two week shipping option I was used to in NZ.”

When I moved to Tokyo back in 2010, I loved everything: the kindness of the people, the serenity of the temples, the relaxed feel of the public baths, all this delicious food I’d never tasted before… I was particularly blown away by their high tech toilets. I was in awe of all these mysterious features, heating seats, noise buttons and above all how clean they were! Which was good because a few weeks later there I was hiding in these toilets, using them as a refuge from an environment I was struggling to adapt to. That’s when I found out about the concept of culture shock and realised I was in the stage called frustration.

2. The Frustration Stage

This can be caused by anxiety of not understanding what is happening around us. The exhaustion of having to adapt to a new culture, to face a language barrier or to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings starts to kick in. It can make you feel lonely and homesick.

I had decided to fully immerse myself in the local culture by living with a Japanese family and working in a Japanese firm. In my enthusiasm, I hadn’t realised that all the familiar cues I had grown up with, without even realising it – customs, gestures, specific social interactions – had been removed in this new place. I was not sure how to communicate anymore.

For Jenny Stedman, IP Assistant in our US office, one of the most challenging aspects when she moved to a navy base in Iceland where her husband was based was to cope with the climate. Freshly debarked from San Diego, she found it extremely hard to get used to the cold and the darkness during the winter days. Add to this the limited options for clothing and food shopping, we can all imagine how frustrating this must have been.

But you don’t need an extreme climate or a language barrier to experience culture shock. Another colleague who moved from London to the US did not expect it: “The surprising challenges were around finding products that I needed and doing simple things like grocery shopping. Even though the language is the same, it can be difficult to know what products are called and lots of products from home simply aren’t available or are sold in different kinds of places. Managing to achieve simple things like getting keys cut, finding a new watch battery etc left me feeling at a loss at times, which was very strange.”

For Hamish, coming from Wellington, the smallest capital in the world, to London, the largest European capital, the public transport could prove daunting: “There have been too many times that I have either missed or gotten on the wrong train because of a slight displacement of concentration. I remember getting on the wrong train after a few beers a month or two ago, and at some point realised that, not only was I on the wrong train, but I was also 1 hr in the wrong direction. That made me pretty miserable and desperately miss the simplicity of back home, living in a compact city where I could walk anywhere quite easily.” Mind you I am pretty sure this happened to quite a few Londoners themselves!

3. The Adjustment Stage

Luckily frustrations are often subdued as you adapt to this new culture and environment.

One of my colleagues found that knowledge of trademarks can help overcome some challenges: “Finding things in the beginning can be very challenging, especially when trying to use Google or Amazon, so I ended up relying on trademarks a lot to find what I needed. I found that really fascinating and it really brought home to me the value of strong branding, even though I know that already, in theory, through my work. ‘Plasters’ is an example. Resorting to trademarks like Band-Aid® is what gets the message across.”

Doris Akufo-Addo, Trademark Legal Assistant, spent five years in Dubai and decided to follow local rules even though that was not always easy: “Although most expats drink alcohol illegally you are supposed to have an alcohol licence. Being scared of being caught without it, I decided to get one. In doing so, your employer has to apply for the licence for you to a government body, who will check your credentials to ensure you are not a Muslim before issuing you with a licence for 2 years. My application was refused because they thought (why I do not know) that I was Muslim. I had to go the government office and swear in an affidavit that I was not a Muslim before I was issued with a licence. The joke is that certain friends, without their own licence, used to give me a list when I was going to the shop so I could get some alcohol for them and they drank far more than me.”

Joking about these challenges, rather than criticising the country, is a good sign that you are in the adjustment stage.

4. The Acceptance Stage

By then you feel much more at ease; accepting that this new country is not like your home country and has good sides too, you even feel at home there.

That is definitely how I felt after a few months spent in Japan. By that time I could buy Japanese food in a supermarket and actually know what to do with it, I regularly went to pray in Shinto temples and I enjoyed many chats with old ladies in the public baths despite my broken Japanese.

Doris also ended up enjoying all that Dubai had to offer: “Personally I enjoyed my time there and believe the education system was very good for my daughter. It’s a safe country as in you can be reassured of not getting mugged or having anything stolen. Also I made friends for life.”

5. Reverse Culture Shock

Now that you are finally adjusted to a new culture and it is time to head back home you would be forgiven for thinking it will be easy to resume your old life. However it can be surprisingly difficult. When you are abroad you tend to create an idealised version of your homeland and it can be an eye opener to be back. Also you end up missing aspects of the country and the people you have become accustomed to.

That is what Doris realised when she came back to the UK: “Living in the UAE makes you lazy, from shopping and getting your groceries packed for you by someone at the till and getting petrol without stepping out of the car because an attendant will do it and wipe your screen for you. Having things wrapped in the stores for you (any store including the supermarkets) becomes so familiar, I found myself asking an assistant in a clothes shop when I was back in England to wrap some clothes for me. I was sharply put in my place and told they do not offer such services.”

You might have to go through the culture shock phases again to adjust back to your own country. This is what is called “reverse culture shock”.


Is it possible to avoid culture shock? I cannot answer that question but it is certainly feasible to prepare for it and face it, like Nicola Greenbrook, HR Specialist, did for her move to Australia: “I had done quite a bit of research in the UK on work/recruitment agencies and registered with some online, so that had helped. Reaching out to friends who lived in other parts of Australia and visiting them at the weekends. Also trying to be brave! Joining groups and saying ‘yes’ to all invitations and opportunities at work and from new friends, even if it felt terrifying at the time.”

Also it is helpful to keep a positive attitude and an open mind, despite the challenges, like Liz Arcus, Executive Paralegal from New Zealand who lived in the UK and Australia and is now in the US: “Travelling is great because it pushes you and makes you embrace a different culture, as people do things so differently all over the world, but no one way is the right way!”



Page published on 3rd May 2019
Page last modified on 3rd May 2019
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