Cracking the cultural code to understand expat anguish

Every person’s mental programming is partly unique, partly shared with others.

Geert Hofstede

Do you have the feeling that the people in your new home dance to a different beat of life and you don’t always hear the music?

Sure, you know how to navigate most encounters in your new home, but do you sense the invisible boundaries that leave you feeling like an outsider?

And I’ve had many conversations with other expats, global citizens and trailing partners who felt this way. They thought it would take a lifetime to ‘fit in’ to their new country, if ever at all.

What many expats don’t realize is this: once you understand the cultural code, you can get into your rhythm a lot faster and with less angst. You can rid yourself of inter-cultural malaise for good.

I’m helping expats like you to crack the cultural code by revealing what’s under the hood. You’re going to see how your engine can get out of synch and cause overheating and sputtering.

You see, culture is measurable. And when you plot the culture of your home country against your new one, it can reveal what’s causing your pain.

Unpacking the cultural code

According to Hofstede Insights, there are 6 dimensions that make up the cultural code.

  1. Power Distance: This measures the society’s tolerance towards inequality. It basically shows how hierarchical the society is.
  2. Individualism:  Measures the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It’s whether the people think more in terms of “I” (individualist) or “We” (Collectivist). 
  3. Masculinity: Is the society driven more by competition, achievement (masculine), or caring for others and quality of life (feminine)?
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance: How the society deals with future. Does it try to control it or just let it happen?
  5. Long-Term Orientation: To what degree the society maintains links with its past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future. Does the society prioritise time honoured traditions or living in the moment?
  6. Indulgence: The extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses. Cultures can be described as indulgent or restrained.

Discovering the source of your cultural discord

Using Hofstede’s comparison tool, you can see where your cultural discomfort might be coming from.

Do this by selecting and comparing your home country with your new location to see the values for the six dimensions.

Spain versus United States

Let’s take a look at how Spain generally compares to the States.

The comparison chart shows you the areas in which life could be more challenging for an American living in Madrid.

The score on Power Distance (40) in combination with one of the most Individualist (91) cultures in the world can reflect itself in the following: 

  • In your personal life, you might have difficulty establishing healthy and respectful boundaries with your Spanish partner’s family and friends, since there’s a stronger tendency to identify with the group, rather than individual preferences.
  • In the workplace, you could run into challenges with your supervisor, who may prefer to manage more closely and be more directly involved in your decision-making, than what you may be accustomed to in the States.
  • In Spain, there’s a different sense of time, which shows up in all scenarios ranging from scheduling appointments, meeting friends and even mealtimes.

Closing the gaps

Acquaint yourself with these dimensions to gain a general frame of reference. 

Keep in mind that the cultural dimensions represent broad tendencies and preferences that distinguish countries, not individuals. 

Tune into your personal preferences as it relates to each of the six dimensions and notice the gaps. These gaps are your opportunities to learn, grow and find your new normal for the new YOU.

Create your own community. Even if you’re a born introvert, living abroad doesn’t afford you the luxury of remaining an introvert. It will take time, intentionality and effort to build the 5 kinds of relationships you need to thrive globally.

You don’t have to live like a fish out of water

There are tools available to each of us as we assemble the fragments to create an authentic sense of wholeness while building our lives away from home.

Reinventing yourself abroad is an exciting and rewarding experience. There are mistakes to be made and as a result, lessons to be learned. 

If you’re currently mired in the ‘messy middle’ of reinventing yourself, it feels better when you know that others truly understand. You’re not alone.

Monère Renoir Wanner

Monère helps global citizens navigate the difficulties of establishing a new life abroad and create thriving international lifestyles.

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