Life is made up of changes. Some are really remarkable, others barely perceptible. What we all experience, to some extent, are the stages we go through before we adjust and make sense of the change happening. It all depends on how open and how prepared we are to accept change.
When facing a major change in life, such as a serious illness, loss of a loved one, divorce or a major international move, we go through so called ‘Change Stages’ which was illustrated by Norwegian sociologist Sverre Lysgaard back in 1955 by the use of a ‘u-curve’. He described the stages associated with a cross-cultural adjustment…
“Adjustment as a process over time seems to follow a U-shaped curve: adjustment is felt to be easy and successful to begin with; then follows a ‘crisis’ in which one feels less well adjusted, somewhat lonely and unhappy; finally one begins to feel better adjusted again, becoming more integrated into the foreign community.”
Many diagrams have been developed over the years which look similar to this:
The curve is the most reliable tool to understand change and the stages associated with it. It has been adapted by business leaders throughout the world to help employees adapt to change and move towards success.
This kind of model is also widely used in cross-cultural trainings. Anyone who lives a mobile life – expats, internationals, migrants, refugees –goes through these stages to some extent at his/her own pace. In the curve below I have added another stage, the Leaving Stage, because I consider it a very important moment during this kind of transition.
This stage usually starts when we are informed about a major change or we decide to move.
If we are involved in the process, the first reaction will be to get ready and start organising. We (still) feel settled and comfortable and, if we have time to get used to the idea of change and we are looking forward to it, we are not worried about the future but are focused on the positive aspects of it.
If we are not involved in the decision making process about the change, we’re put into the victims’ role. Change happens with or without our approval, regardless of whether we’re ready for it.
This very first stage is the most influential in the cycle as it heavily influences how we face the next stages. Someone who is not convinced and not ready for change, will deny that change happens and is much more likely to struggle with the following stages.
The Leaving Stage can be compared with the Denial and Anger stage by Kübler-Ross, if we’re not involved. It activates a defense mechanism and we need time to process the disturbing news or reality. Some may not want to believe what is happening. After an initial surprise (or shock), they can either experience denial or focus more on the past. The chances that we remain in the state of denial for a long time are higher if we feel not supported. This leads some of us to lose touch with reality. Another very natural reaction to change that we didn’t decide ourselves is anger. This anger is usually directed to the person responsible for the change: the partner, the workgiver etc., but it can also be directed towards ourselves or randomly towards others around us. Some are angry at life in general, others blame the economy or politics. Classical symptoms for this stage are irritability, frustration and short temperedness.
It is always advisable to let everyone involved in the change participate in the different phases from the beginning – for mobile families this means that every single family member has a say and should be involved and supported during the whole process
Following the Leaving or Anger Stage, we begin to think of ways to make the most of the situation. We may try to negotiate the situation and compromise. Those who did not experience the Anger Stage, consider this stage a bargain. They focus on the positive aspects of change, much like a honeymoon, where everything is exciting, new and special.
This Honeymoon Stage begins with arrival in the new location and lasts, on average, for the first couple of months.
During the Honeymoon Stage we are excited and curious. We attempt to acclimate to the local culture. It can also be compared with when we are on holidays, where everything that is different is exciting. If we consider culture like an iceberg (cfr. Edward T. Hall, see picture below), during this stage we are only scratching the surface, seeing just the top of the iceberg. Toward the end of this phase, what were regular tasks back home begin feeling like challenge. Going grocery shopping, ordering in a restaurant, having the internet connected, even taking a taxi or bus becomes more like an adventure.
The moment we realize we’re staying longer than was expected, our honeymoon is over. We may feel insecure and temporarily disfunctional: things are different and may not make sense for us as we usually compare them with behaviours, values and beliefs we already know. We feel out of our comfort zone and tend to be more self-centered than normal. Parents focus more on their jobs and routines, while children tend to become more insecure. This is the stage where family conflicts occur for the smallest reasons. We get angry easily, start stereotyping the host country and culture, feel homesick, helpless, hopeless and irritable.
We feel less confident and have the impressionthat we need to learn life from scratch. Some start feeling alienated, disoriented, confused, and lonely.
This is the moment where we need to be proactive and creative.
We have to “dig deeper” and explore the hidden aspects of the new culture – in the iceberg model this is the part that is hidden under the surface.
By leaving the more passive state where we wonder “why is this happening to me?”, we want to find a new purpose and (re)discovering our drives can help us get out of this stage.
Being aware of the existence of cultural adjustment and realizing that it is natural to experience this stage, talking about these feelings with someone we feel comfortable with will help us to find a way to focus on the positive aspects of the new culture. The best way to explore the different is to ask questions, preserving a certain sense of humor because we will make mistakes, faux-pas; but everyone does. Accepting failure as part of the learning process will help to overcome this stage easier.
In the recovery stage, life feels no longer chaotic. We’re accepting the new situation and find a new meaning. It can still feel like a rollercoaster ride and we feel the ambivalence of our experiences. Emotions fluctuate between excitement and homesickness, but we’re starting to find answers to many questions. We realize that fighting change or the different is not going to make it easier, on the contrary. Some resign to the situation others will accept it. Resigning to the situation is not necessarily negative, because it means that the person is no longer resisting to change, but moving on – and in this whole process, movement is positive.
If we are in this stage, we “jump in” and try to participate by using the “trial and error” method. We learn about the culture, the values and beliefs, the language, and we engage more with locals. We may also start making plans about our personal and professional life and get more involved.
The adjustment stage is the one where we accept the different, find out what aspects are similar to those we know from other places we’ve lived, and adopt what we like or what makes sense to us and adapt. We know “how it works”, start feeling to belong and others see us as part of the group.
At this stage we have integrated into the host culture and are able to function without much effort, perhaps even adopting a dual cultural identity.
Although the curve may suggest a linear movement through the stages, it is important to understand that everyone moves through these stages at his own pace and in a random order. Sometimes we may even return back to a previous stage, and we can experience them for several aspects in our life (private life, partnership, parenting, job, health etc.). Each stage lasts for a different time period, and it is possible that we get stuck in one particular stage, and need help to move on from there. – If we have an open mindset that allows us to think “people” not “country”, and if we are ready to make the first move and willing to connect, we’ll be able to successfully navigate the transition stages.
“We can not direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails” (Aristoteles)