The Stages of Cultural Adjustment (Part 1 of 3)

When thinking about and planning to move to a new country, the number of logistical preparations to take care of can seem endless.  Especially if you are moving not just by yourself, but with a partner and children in tow.  Sorting out housing, schools, cars, documents – documents! – and much more, add up to many, many (wo)man hours of work. 

You finally get each and every item crossed off the list, you arrive in Italy, and here you are.  Ready to begin your life abroad.   How can you expect to feel?

Adjusting to a new culture is a process, and not always a linear one.  There are ups and downs, stops and starts, and in the beginning it can often feel like one step forward, two steps back.  But if you know in advance how the process of cultural adaptation generally works for most people, you can weather the highs and lows better, knowing that you will indeed eventually feel at home in your new culture.

Stage One: The Honeymoon

You’re living in Italy!  Wow!  In this initial stage, experiences are new and exciting and enthusiasm is high.  You’re curious and interested, and the novelty of your new surroundings is stimulating.  Your interaction and involvement with your new culture is still fairly superficial, more like a tourist than a resident. You’re intrigued by the similarities and differences, and you generally feel energetic and positive.

In this early time of adjustment, it’s important to enjoy all the fun and excitement, but also to remember that it’s a phase.  Just like all relationships that last, the heady, giddy days of early infatuation give way to deeper, more challenging – and meaningful – levels of awareness and acceptance, and your relationship with Italy will be no different.

Stage Two: Culture Shock

The bloom is off the rose. Where you first felt curious, you now feel critical.  Excitement has been replaced by frustration.  The sense of newness and opportunity has morphed into a sense of isolation and loneliness.  You may be feeling overwhelmed, homesick, anxious or helpless.  You may think of yourself as less competent.  You are amazed at how you handled daily tasks big and small in your home country with nary a thought, and you now find you are undone by even the smallest of setbacks.  You find yourself getting angry that things don’t work “the way they should.”  That almost every single thing you want or need to get done takes infinitely longer, both because you have to learn how to do even the most mundane tasks from scratch, and because again, things just don’t work like they do back home. 

During this phase, you may be missing all the people, places and things that are familiar, as well as a sense of belonging.  You are acutely aware of the differences that separate you from those in your adopted country, and the divide can feel isolating.  Stereotypes and prejudices might surface and you can start to have a less positive view of the culture and people.  Small frustrations or setbacks can feel like major catastrophes, and your coping mechanisms are at an all-time low.  How will you ever be happy here?

This is the most challenging phase of cultural adaptation and the time in which it is especially important to have the necessary support and resources.  Seeking out people with whom you can openly discuss your experiences, e.g., fellow ex-pats, locals who have lived abroad and a professional counselor, can all provide invaluable understanding, advice and encouragement.  Just as the honeymoon phase passed, so too will this more difficult time of culture shock from living and functioning fully in your new country. 

Next time in part two of the series, we will discuss Stage Three, Adjustment and Adaptation.


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