Students Staff

14 April 2016

Investigating the 'culture shock' myth

Dr Geeraert

What do people worry about when they move abroad and how do they respond to living in a new place? Dr Nicolas Geeraert from the Department of Psychology has been surveying young people about their experiences and seeing what lessons we can learn. He has just returned from New Zealand where he spoke about his work to senior immigration officials at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment in Wellington. We caught up with him to find out more.

What have you been looking at in your latest research and why?

In my research I study how people who temporarily move abroad adapt to their new cultural environment. In the ESRC sponsored project, we surveyed a total of 2,500 high-school students who took part in a year-long intercultural exchange (i.e. studying abroad). These students lived with a local host family and attended school in the local language. Through this study we examined different aspects of living abroad including well-being, stress, adaptation, personality, and social contact.

What were your key findings?

There is a long standing belief that people who live abroad experience a period of heightened stress, which is known as culture shock. Although it is a popular theory, the evidence for it is rather weak. In our research we were able to clearly demonstrate that culture shock is mostly a myth. Although we found evidence for two different types of culture shock, these episodes of heightened stress occurred for only 8 per cent of our sample. However, the students that did experience high stress had an increased risk of not finishing their year abroad. Put differently they are more likely to return home early.

What would be your tips for reducing stress if you or a loved one are relocating to another country?

Our research suggests that people with certain personality traits will find it easier abroad. Different personality traits seem to play a role, but the biggest effect emerged for extroversion. We found that extroverted students had less stress and were less likely to experience culture shock. On the other hand students who scored high on neuroticism experienced more stress. However, we have very little control over our personality, and so it would be difficult for us to change this. We did also find that using the right coping mechanisms is useful, as is social support. Based on that, I would recommend people who go abroad to keep an open mind, deal with problems head-on, and to be accepting of the many cultural differences that they will encounter. Seeking social support from others is more effective if they are in the host country as well (as opposed to speaking to people back home).

You've just given a speech to the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment in New Zealand - how did that come about?

The talk was to senior government officials from New Zealand Immigration, which is a subdivision of the Ministry. I have just spent a month visiting the Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research at Victoria University in New Zealand. My hosts at Victoria have excellent contacts with the Ministry and so I was asked to give a talk.

What was their reaction to your speech?

The talk was very well received. New Zealand Immigration actively engages with incoming migrants and helps to prepare them in the best possible way so my research is potentially relevant to their work.

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