Adapting to a new culture

Warning! The following contains personal musings with no images. Read at your own risk!

A Danish friend of mine who has read the blog chastised me in a light-hearted manner for painting too rosy a picture of Denmark. I promised that I would provide more critical comments in due course but, before that, I thought I would set the stage by discussing the topic of cultural adaptation.

In preparing to move to Denmark, I spent a significant amount of time reading blogs and forums of other expats who have worked and lived here. I found the information both enlightening and, at times, disturbing. While many criticisms appeared valid, some clearly stemmed from a lack of societal awareness and an unwillingness to adapt to a different culture. Although I don’t claim to be an expert in this area, I thought I would provide thoughts from my own knowledge and experience.

I should start by stating that there is no such thing as a “perfect” culture. In many cases, things are not “better” or “worse”, just DIFFERENT. By definition, culture is defined by differences. Culture would cease to exist if everyone ate the same food, wore the same clothes, spoke the same language or otherwise acted in the same manner.

Everyone is fascinated by the variety that culture provides. Who hasn’t enjoyed a meal with family or friends at an (authentic) Italian or Mexican restaurant? Or what student hasn’t embarked on a post-college backpacking trip and not come back describing it as the experience of a lifetime? Culture inspires creativity, optimism, enthusiasm. But these cultural experiences are temporary, with the knowledge that at the end of the trip, we are going home. Home is what defines us, makes us who we are. And it is in this culture that we feel most comfortable.

Moving to a different country is something completely different. The rose-tinted glasses which highlight everything that is good about a culture (“Honeymoon” phase) are soon replaced by a magnifying glass which amplifies everything that is different (“Negotiation” phase). And these differences constantly remind us that we are not “home”. Your ability to cope with this “culture shock” will define your experience and determine whether it is positive or not.

It’s one thing to speak about culture shock in the abstract. It’s another to overcome it. The question is, how does one adapt? Although I don’t profess to be an expert, these are observations from my own experience, education and conversations with other expats who have experienced the same.

First, accept that culture shock is inevitable. It will occur, despite your best preparations. Humans are creatures of habit and when habits are disrupted as a result of moving to a different culture, culture shock will invariably follow. In spite of this, it is important to recognize that the severity of this shock can be largely controlled by educating yourself about the culture you are moving to and psychologically preparing yourself for these differences.

While it is important to adapt to a new culture, it is equally important that you not forget your past. You are a product of your past and it is imperative that you maintain connections to it. This includes recognizing important holidays, networking with other expats and maintaining a well-stocked pantry of supplies from your homeland. Just make sure that you do not live in the past or let these connections define you. If you approach a new culture with an open mind and a positive attitude, you will adapt. Ways to accelerate this process include becoming involved in athletic clubs, language groups or religious organizations to facilitate the development of friends and help you adjust to the language and customs of a new culture.

Although most individuals are not cognizant of it, there are five possible approaches you can take in adapting to a new culture. Your success (or failure) will largely depend on which one you “choose”.

  1. Reject it (horrible)
  2. Ignore it (bad)
  3. Accept it (good)
  4. Overcome it (better)
  5. Embrace it (best)

All of which brings me back to where I began. Cultures are not necessarily better or worse, just different. Furthermore, no culture has a monopoly on good ideas. By embracing a new culture, you will come to recognize and adopt aspects which are superior to your own and accept those which are inferior. When you reach that state, you are truly home.


About Canadianindenmark

A Canadian expat working in the biotechnology industry in Copenhagen, Denmark
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