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How to Adjust to a Foreign Culture

Festival in Japan

Living abroad is an exciting opportunity to experience diverse cultures and environments — to meet people from all over the world. However, there is often a period of adjustment after moving to a different country. It takes time to learn a new language, customs, gestures and a monetary system. Here are some strategies to help you adjust to a foreign culture.

Stages of cultural adjustment

You may be feeling stressed, excited, uncertain, or all of the above. It may help to know that many other service members and families have also felt the same. It’s normal to feel any or all of these emotions. Understanding the stages of cultural adjustment can help you recognize your feelings and connect to resources and support.

  • Apprehension: When you receive overseas orders, it’s not unusual to feel scared, uneasy or worried about how you will handle the changes. Fortunately there are trained service providers available to assist you every step of the way. Learn how the military Relocation Assistance Program can help you master your overseas move.
  • Exhilaration: Challenges and unknowns can be exciting. Feelings of fascination and enthusiasm are typical as you pack up for your new destination and can last after your arrival. Try to hold on to those feelings of excitement and enthusiasm as you face adjustments and challenges.
  • Culture shock: After spending a little time in the new culture, you may become tired and overwhelmed from all the new things there are to learn such as different types of measurements, money and exchange rates, — not to mention trying to master a foreign language. Give yourself whatever time you need to get adjusted. Reach out to your installation Military and Family Support Center for assistance or connection to resources.
  • Integration and acceptance: After a while, you get a better grasp of the language and the gestures become second nature. You know how to navigate the local community and you are comfortable with paying for things in the local currency or driving and finding your way around. Your family begins to feel at home and they are learning to appreciate the opportunities around them. You may even be ready to pay it forward by becoming a sponsor to a newcomer in your unit.

Strategies for blending into a foreign culture

The better you can adapt to a new culture, the more you can enjoy your overseas adventure. Here are some strategies you can use to get started.

  • Learn the language. Maybe you’ve never tried the language before or you know a few words already. Start out small with conversational phrases such as greetings or expressions of thanks and appreciation, like please and thank you. You may never become fluent in the language, and that’s ok. Most individuals appreciate when you try to speak their language, even if you do so imperfectly. Check with your Military and Family Support Center for language and cultural classes to get you started.
  • Speak English clearly. Many individuals around the world speak English, but don’t understand slang phrases or jargon. Speak slowly and clearly to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Eat the native foods: In foreign cultures, food is often a symbol of hospitality. Eating the foods offered to you is a form of a compliment to your host. Even if you don’t like it, try to eat it with a smile and thank the host for a tasty meal.
  • Dress appropriately. Clothing is a central part of the customs and traditions of most cultures. While shorts and a tank top may be common casual wear in the U.S. they may be considered rude in other parts of the world. Take note of how the locals dress and become familiar with local dress and appearance customs.
  • Learn how to address people. Some cultures are very formal in how they address each other. Become familiar with the titles people use and what is considered courteous.
  • Be on time. Your friends in the U.S. may not mind if you’re running 15 minutes late for a lunch, but in some cultures being tardy shows a lack of respect for the other person.
  • Be open-minded. Be receptive to trying new things like food and language. You never know, you might discover you have a new favorite. Explore the history and culture and take time to learn about your new community. Keeping an open mind to new experiences can lead to positive growth.

More information about living overseas

Check out the following articles for more information about life overseas:

Adapting to a new culture may not always be easy, but it can be part of the fun and adventure of living overseas. If you have questions or need assistance, Military OneSource consultants are available with support 24/7 anywhere in the world. Call 800-342-9647, use OCONUS calling options, or schedule a live chat. We’re here to help you master your move and enjoy your overseas adventure.


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