Cultural adaptation – steps and challenges

Adapting to a new country and a new culture is no easy task.

Unless you parents are ambassadors – and you grew up accustomed to moving – living in a different place, which includes working, socializing, etc, demands patience and persistence.

According to the Global Mobility Effectiveness Survey, the worldwide rate of unsuccessful expatriation is very high. About 55% of expatriates return to their country of origin ahead of schedule. That means business losses and a lot of headaches for the HR manager.

According to the survey, the greatest difficulties faced by the expatriate are issues related to personal and family adaptation (47%).

Cultural shock is already perceived as an occupational hazard and is known to reduce productivity and dry up the creativity of even the most experienced executives.

That is why it is so important to have good support in the adaptation period.

In this period full of challenges, we break the barrier of a new language, understand the social codes of the new culture, and often the internal (tacit or explicit) codes of the company for which we work.

Even international companies with a well-standardized policy have particularities that vary according to the culture of each country.

In addition to cultural, behavioral and language barriers, there are practical difficulties, such as identifying and creating a home away from home through the daily routines that life demands.

According to the anthropologist Kalberg Oberg, the curve of cultural adaptation happens in three stages:

First stage: appropriately called “Honeymoon”, the expatriate lives a moment of euphoria and excitement. This phase is relatively short, about two weeks. The expatriate at this stage arrives at work very excited and interested in every facet of the company.

Second stage: we find this is the most critical period. Here the expatriate faces difficulties ranging from verbal communication limited by language to non-verbal (gestural and behavioural) communication that he does not yet understand. He also faces problems in locating housing that meets his expectations, still does not know how to move about alone in the city, and is adapting to the local cuisine and may crave more familiar and comforting food.

The pace of life demands constant attention, spouses often suffer without their own work or social life and require a great deal of support, and the demands of a new job with a completely unfamiliar work culture can be overwhelming. So we see that there are several elements that directly affect productivity and mood, and the joy of the first phase can easily turn into irritation and fatigue.


Third stage: The expatriate and their family will be settled in, the basic aspects of housing, food and security will be solved and they will already feel comfortable to navigate cultural differences, maintaining a well organized and good quality life.

It’s crucial to understand that these stages affect everyone because they are part of a process.

The important thing is to maintain good humor, seek specialized support and know that at the end of the journey this adaptation can make our career and our life more rich and interesting.