What do you do if your partner or children are having a hard time getting settled in your new location, if they are struggling to the point of not wanting to stay? It’s a common enough problem. As a matter of fact, the inability of loved ones to adjust to the destination country is one of the top reasons for a failed assignment. But why is this the case, and what can you do to proactively work toward a different outcome? There is no “one way” to do it, but in almost all cases curiosity, deliberate work, and support, are basic ingredients.

Language barriers and cultural differences are two of the main obstacles to feeling settled and immersed in a new community. Learning the language is an obvious place to start, but it takes dedication and a willingness to put in the effort. However, the rewards of knowing your local language, even if it’s just a little bit, are substantial. Author John le Carré says it best in this recent article from The Guardian: “The decision to learn a foreign language is to me an act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking.”

Cross-cultural training as a concept is a bit vague and undefined. It can be difficult to know how to “work on” your cultural adaptation. Most of us figure that if we only give it time, things will naturally fall into place. To some degree that’s true – over time you will get to know your community and the culture, at least a little bit. The problem is that when you don’t actively set out to learn about your surroundings, or try to understand why people are the way they are, you will never get deeper than a scratch to the surface.

Many companies offer practical support to expat employees and their families, some also offer cross-cultural training. It’s common for assignees to leverage the practical help, such as assistance with finding a place to live and to fill out applications. But the more intangible, like cross-cultural adaptation training is often met with skepticism, as many can’t see what it can do for them.

Cultural adaptation means different things to different people. It can mean learning how to build a social network, or figuring out parenting practices in your new country. For an accompanying partner it may mean getting help with career decisions, setting goals and making networking plans. For a working partner it may be focused on work culture and social norms in the workplace.

I interviewed an acquaintance of mine recently (read full interview here). She relocated with her family seven years ago when her husband’s company offered him a position in their Silicon Valley office. There were two things in particular she talked about that stuck with me. One was that from the very get-go they viewed their relocation as a family project. This was not a move to further her husband’s career. This was for the whole family and the goal was to make it work for everyone. They were actively engaged. They took advantage of the company’s support services such as tutoring. In their case, they used the tutoring hours to get a head start on language learning and to make sure their kids were caught up on math, which they knew was going to be a challenge once school started.

The other thing they did was to seek out people with experience of international relocation. Talking to those who have gone before is an excellent way to get insights to your new country and to your new life. Because of course, you are not only getting used to life in a new country, you are also getting used to life away from your old surroundings. You are getting used to life without regular support networks of friends and family, without favorite comfort foods, places to go and activities to engage in. In a way it’s a double whammy – setting up the new while not being able to lean on the old.

By: Felicia Shermis

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