You may have encountered an advertisement on the web that reads something along the lines of “Are you looking to broaden your horizons?” or “Do you want to earn money while travelling the world?” If you click the link, you will likely end up on a website that offers you work abroad.
This may pique your interest, causing you to read on for a little while. You’ll find overwhelmingly positive testimonies from former applicants, a wide selection of possible destinations and promises of continued support from the company. Let’s say you decide to do a bit more research. You will find that for every positive working abroad experience, there is an equally negative one. And though reasons vary from individual to individual, “culture shock” is near the top of the list of why international work placements often turn out to be less than ideal.
“Culture shock” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are faced with an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” It typically progresses through a series of phases: the honeymoon period, homesickness, adjustment, and finally, acceptance. Some models omit the honeymoon period altogether, as one may feel a sense of apprehension immediately after arriving in another country. Similarly, some individuals never reach the adjustment and acceptance stages, and leave their host country with little more than apathy and bad memories.
And yet, culture shock may actually hold some hidden benefits. For starters, it drives individuals to confront and devise solutions to their problems. They are also given plenty of opportunities to interact with people of differing backgrounds and learn the language. It can also help people handle similar circumstances in the future, providing a precedent to compare them to. There is even evidence that creative insight can be fostered through exposure to new cultures!
Moreover, international experiences are becoming ever more valuable for increasing one’s employability. It is arguably the most obvious indicator of a “global mindset”, and the ability to thrive in a variety of environments. Those who have worked abroad also have an edge over competitors for jobs — consultant, human resources specialist, cultural liaison — that require strong intercultural competence and knowledge.
Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether working abroad is a viable course of action. Culture shock may not be a problem for everyone, but it can be a problem for some — including you. And until you find yourself in an unfamiliar environment, you cannot be truly certain about how you will react.