This feels foreign to me: a talk with Lisa La Valle-Finan

mother and son in Crete, Greece

As Globiana’s Cross Cultural Adaptation Lead and as a former expat herself, Lisa La Valle-Finan has a wealth of knowledge and personal experience on the topic of culture shock. Here, she explains what it is and how it feels, and she shares some of her own personal insights about what it was like to cope as an American expat in Greece, the UK and Spain.

One of the biggest challenges she experienced as a result of culture shock was not being able to express herself fully because of the Greek language barrier. She says: “The combined barrier of not being able to express myself, along with the unfamiliar surroundings, made me feel like a child again. At times, I felt exhausted because I had to parse my words and explain so much.”

Language is a known trigger of culture shock. Having to express yourself and understand your surroundings in a language you don’t have full command of can make you feel disoriented, frustrated, and bottled up. Lisa figured out pretty quickly that it was important to find support in her own language, to share her thoughts and feelings with someone who shared the same cultural references. She also realized that learning the local language would be key to truly adapting to her new environment.

In Lisa’s experience, learning a foreign language and feeling at home in a new culture go hand in hand. Taking a language class is a good start, but the best way to learn is to listen, absorb, and speak. She suggests: “The sooner you let go and learn it, the sooner you will adjust. The foreign will feel more familiar, that much faster.” Of course, as an adult, this is easier said than done. There are many inhibitions to overcome and for a trailing spouse for example, there may not be that many natural opportunities.

In general, the transition tends to be easier for younger children who naturally immerse at school and for the employed spouse, where the workplace offers opportunities to practice and immerse. For teenagers, the process can be trickier. Teenagers have a strong need to fit in and when you don’t speak the language, then that’s a flag that you’re not from around here! In Lisa’s coaching experience, teenagers do adjust quickly once they get over the initial language barrier. The transition is often the hardest on the trailing spouse.

It is a natural instinct to call on family and friends when we’re feeling blue or lonesome. However, it can be difficult to talk about how and why you’re struggling. You’re supposed to be on this big adventure, having the time of your life so there’s a little bit of reluctance to be honest and open. Lisa says: “Let’s face it, living abroad is complicated, exhilarating, and exhausting all at the same time and your ‘expat problems’ may not be met with true understanding by your loved ones. In fact, they probably won’t get it, at all.”

When Lisa was living as an expat, she wrote a lot of letters to communicate with friends and family. These letters turned out to be a kind of ‘field notes therapy’. They evolved into a valuable tool she relied on to express her thoughts and feelings. It may sound ‘old-timey’, but when you think about it, it’s really just a precursor to the blog and it’s an effective tool that coaches recommend. Globiana coaches have given you a space to “journal” in most of their courses for this exact reason. Try it!

Culture shock is definitely going to happen and anticipating it will increase your ability to cope and adapt. One more thing to be aware of, culture shock doesn’t really happen as abruptly as the term implies. In fact, it’s more of a process with different stages that starts before you leave home, and lasts until well after the return. It is impossible to prepare fully for expatriation. To some degree, it will always be a leap of faith. Lisa says: “It’s good to be aware that change is hard, that moving to a new country is hard. But, if you can let yourself ‘experience the experience’ and feel ok with not being in control, that may be how you will achieve the most satisfying personal growth. The most joyous experience may be the one you least expect.”

Learn more about Lisa La Valle-Finan’s culture course here.

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