The 4 Stages of Culture Shock: A Franco-British Experience

houses of parliament

If there is one thing that all expats have in common, it is the experience of culture shock. Put two displaced people together and they will soon be commiserating and bonding over some funny story from their first few months in the country. Culture shock is an unavoidable and necessary aspect of moving abroad. Let’s face it, we are talking about a major life change, as significant and stressful as moving house or getting married. It should come as no surprise that it takes time to deal with change, both good and bad, and that this process can on occasion be painful.

When I was day-dreaming this post up late at night, I figured sharing 4 phases every homesick person goes through would be a good idea simply because 4 seemed like a friendly round number. I was therefore gratified to learn I wasn’t just making them up; existing research on the subject shows there are broadly 4 stages of culture shock. How convenient! Here’s how it was for me:

1. ‘OMG I’m in another country, isn’t everything wonderful?’ a.k.a. The Honeymoon stage

Everything was indeed wonderful.

  • I found a job within a month of arrival by just talking to people in shops and handing them my CV (unheard of in France, seriously).
  • All the books were so cheap and I would spend entire afternoons alone with a book and a hefty dictionary.
  • I was strongly encouraged to watch the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice and for the first time, I actually got the jokes.
  • I had lessons at the dinner table on how to pronounce ‘sauce’ (not as easy as you’d think), rough and ploughman, and I learnt the British had many synonyms for ‘cold’. After about three or four months, one person declared I was officially getting there when I described the weather as ‘a bit nippy’. My year-long trip was turning out great!

2. The ‘Everything was so much better at home’ stage, also known as Raging Homesickness, the Crisis

This stage can be made even worse if you are learning a new language. Withdrawal and anxiety doesn’t begin to describe the experience;  think alienation. If you don’t understand half of what people are saying and when you’re at the pub you can’t get a word in edgeways before the conversation moves on, it goes downhill very quickly. Communication is key to feeling accepted; being unable to express yourself beyond the basics can scramble your sense of identity in ways that are difficult to explain. Don’t be surprised if there is a lot of crying involved.

You notice every little thing that is different and your first reaction is ‘this is totally useless and stupid, why would you do it this way?’. First you can’t open a bank account because you don’t have a passport. You didn’t need one to get over the border because ‘EU’ but now you have to hide your cash-in-hand job money under your mattress like you’re a freakin’ refugee.

This is even more true when you go to the weekly outdoors market in the town centre and here’s one bloke selling mattresses (outside? Really?), another chap is selling cheap phone covers, and here’s a fishmonger handing out little polystyrene pots full of cold jellied eels or cockles. To eat there and then. Yep, that’s an actual thing. You spend your days comparing your home country to this strange new place and finding it wanting. It has nothing to do with the actual culture though, it’s just your brain and emotions processing change and trying to adapt.

3. The ‘I’m starting to get the hang of this but you’re still stupid’ stage – Adjustment

You’re adjusting! You might even appreciate that some things are much better than in your own country. Like fish and chips and Indian food! Vaguely unbiased press! Decent TV (TOWIE notwithstanding, it really really is decent. The BBC rocks, you have no idea how deprived France is).

You can even have conversations with people: the Essex habit of dropping the end of each word is starting to enter your system so you can understand whole sentences! You have a job you don’t suck at, you’re no longer scared when people speak to you and you have friends. You can laugh at your misfortunes instead of simply drowning in them. Things are looking up.

4. The ‘I could totally pass for a native’ stage – Acceptance

You are bi-cultural, how amazing is that! Also known as total wishful thinking on my part but I once nurtured the fanciful notion that like Charlotte Gray, my English would become so good that I could be taken for a native and be hired by MI6 or whatever the French equivalent is and become a spy in wartime. Except for the fact that I would now prefer to spy for the English so yep, maybe I swung too far the other way. Anyhoo…

This is the stage when you regain your enthusiasm for your new home and may even adopt habits and preferences because of it. You may still moan about the things that you don’t like but you do so as a fully immersed participant, no longer as an outsider.

culture shock diagram

Even with the culture shock and homesickness, living abroad is an amazingly rich experience. I can’t stress enough how wonderful if is to broaden your horizons in this way and I highly recommend it to anyone seeking to gain a better understanding of the world and all that is in it.

Now your turn: What’s your culture shock story?


Listography – 5 Reasons I Know I’m…

Today’s Listography is so full of possibilities, I want it to be a recurring one. Kate Takes 5 went with 5 Reasons I Know I’m… a Mother in celebration of Mother’s Day, but you can add anything you want. So today, I give you 5 Reasons I Know I’m French living in the UK.

French tricolour flag, the "Tricolore"
Image via Wikipedia
  1. I don’t stop wearing long sleeves and jumpers until it’s over 20 degrees Celsius MINIMUM. Just because the sun is out doesn’t mean it’s warm. Why Brits suddenly behave like it’s August in the South of France and wear short sleeves and shorts in the middle of February is beyond me.
  2. Whilst we are in the subject of the weather, summer starts in June, not April. Next time I hear someone say summer has started and is basing it on the fact that we’ve had a couple of sunny days and there’s a little warmth in the air, I’m going to get a bit stabby. Global warming might be messing things up a bit but there is such a thing as seasons. If you are confused as to what a season is, here’s the definition.
  3. I rant in my head every time I hit the vegetable aisle of the supermarket because of the individually wrapped avocados, potatoes in plastic bags, pre-cut onions (why, WHY?) and anaemic orange-coloured tomatoes that don’t smell of anything. It’s unnatural, is all.
  4. I spend an inordinate amount of my time thinking about cheese.
  5. After nearly 14 years in the UK, I still forget which side of the road to look at before crossing so now I look everywhere. After 14 years, I have to do the same in France. Yes I am that confused.

Culture shock: the early days

I sometimes feel I should have started a blog like this one when I was still new to British culture but I’m not even sure blogs existed then. Nowadays, I am never sure ‘what’ I am. I know I am not British. But am I French? My passport says so, so does my accent and a lot of my food preferences however it would be foolish to ignore that some Britishness has surely seeped through my pores along the way. I am not the same person I was thirteen years ago at so many levels that I can’t tell which part of the change is cultural and which is personal. I’m going to guess it is a bit of both. Nowadays I don’t always recognise a cultural difference when I see one. I am most likely to think ‘I wonder how the French do this?’ rather than recall an actual experience from my past. I am so used to life here that when I learn something new, I can’t always tell if it is a completely new thing or if it is something I knew differently in France that I am re-learning.

I have also noticed that my memories become dim after a major physical move. I find myself focusing on the ‘now’ and everything else is put aside for a time as I do the practical things of putting down furniture and acquainting myself with a new place and new people. I have had two such events in my life and what happens before and after gets its own ‘feel’; I box it up and label it in my head. So my first 18 years in France are ‘my life before England’. It is a dark and troubled time followed by lots of brightness towards the end when I become a Christian and events unfold to take me across the pond to England. The nearly 9 years I spent in Romford were such an intense learning curve culturally, personally and spiritually that it still feels strange to think of it as ‘the past’. Some of it I can barely remember happening whereas other things are very bright and near in my mind. Towards the end, things fizzled out a bit, I met my husband-to-be and life’s adventure took me elsewhere. The four years between then and now have been a major adjustment after the intensity of the previous nine and I don’t know how they ‘feel’ yet.

All this to say that I have been trying to recall my early days in England and the things that struck me as not French, things that I don’t notice anymore, with some difficulty. I was eighteen and had just been dropped off by my mum in the strange-looking place that was Romford, Essex. The plan was that I was going to live with a family for a year; they were part of a local church who were friends of my home church in France.

English: Havering/Romford welcome sign at Rone...
Image via Wikipedia

– I went to an evening church youth group within days of arriving and one of the guys started praying. I swear, the first thing I thought was ‘I don’t understand a single word of this, is this guy even speaking English?’ I could understand quite a bit of what other people were saying so this was an extreme case but it threw me completely. This was my first introduction to the local practice of dropping the end of words and pronouncing ‘th’ ‘v’ e.g. tryin’, innit, alvough instead of although, etc.

– We went straight to the pub after. I cannot begin to tell you how amazing this was to me. From church to the pub and no one breathing down your neck telling you that alcohol is the devil? It was a revelation.

– For months, conversations down the pub went like this for me: ‘they’re talking about the weather. Oh there’s something I can say about this. Quick, check translation in your head, and out… Ah, missed it, what are they talking about now? the latest film. I have something I can say about this. Quick, check translation…’ And so on.

Honestly, I spent my first six months in England in silence because I never had time to speak before the subject matter moved on. In most cases people had already changed topics twice before I could gather my wits and hope to join in. This is just not the case in France, where you can spend an entire evening on the one topic. But to change subjects every few minutes, that was a huge culture shock for me. There was also very little space for me to join in. Because of the group dynamics as they were, people just carried on talking without worrying about whether I understood anything or not. With hindsight, it was both good and bad, good because I would have to learn eventually but at the time, mostly bad and lonesome for me. Making friends is difficult at the best of time. Never being able to join in because you’re not ‘fast enough’ is hard work.

– Girls dress up to go out. For the first time in my life, I was able to buy a dress and wear it with makeup and heels without standing out in a crowd of plain janes in jeans and jumpers. Being able to dress like a girl and enjoy it, that is one of the greatest gifts England gave me. My fashion sense when I moved over was atrocious. I wore home-made cotton dungarees for goodness sake! England saved me from graver fashion disasters, I am sure of it. What can be worse than home-made dungarees, you ask? Let’s not think about that, I’m sure I would have come up with something.

– I was going to live in a box room for a year. It’s hard to describe how astonished I was that people thought this was adequate living space for an 18 year-old girl, or any human being for that matter. It was the size of a broom cupboard. I hadn’t come with all my belongings by a long shot but I still had a lot of clothes and not quite enough space. I survived by the way; in the end it wasn’t a terrible hardship to live in a box room. But after all this time, it still makes me laugh that English people use their box rooms as living spaces. It is unfathomable to me.

– English food can be good! You won’t catch me ordering the steak and kidney pie at a Wetherspoon pub anytime soon but the home-made food I have sampled over the years has been mostly amazing. I still remember a lime cheesecake I had thirteen years ago, that’s how good a cook some people are.

These are just a few things I remember from those early days. I will try to recall some more