3 Ways to Handle the Cultural Stress of New Situations

Stressed out by a new work situation? Are you struggling to find the right "cultural fit"? GLOBIS Faculty Megumi Taoka, who teaches Cross-Cultural Management, is often asked by students about how to deal with this cultural stress--including working in Japan. She shares three simple ways to how to create a positive experience from a stressful new situation.

In spring in Japan, cherry blossoms bloom and signify that change is around the corner. The traditional Japanese fiscal year starts in April, and herds of businesspeople are assigned to new jobs or to overseas locations altogether.

Of course, this trend isn't limited to Japan. People around the world are moving to new work locations and cultures, bringing both excitement and nervousness about the changes ahead.

Both this excitement and nervousness from this situation can create a lot of stress. What's more, these two extreme emotions can come and go abruptly and switch between one other in the most unexpected ways. In some cases, the swing of emotions lasts way beyond an initial stage of transition (with or without a honeymoon period) and can turn into a “love and hate” drama that persists over years.

As an example, I hear requests from international students who struggle with their love and hate for Japanese culture, often asking me for advice. Some of them even consider quitting their job in Japan just to get away from the agony. They often blame Japanese culture for being so “different” and “unglobal” (which raises the question, “What is a global culture anyway?”).

Don’t get me wrong. When living abroad in London and New York, this used to happen to me as well. It is almost funny to realize how dramatic we can get over cultural stress. We tend to react more emotionally than usual. A French philosopher, Émile Chartier (also known by the pseudonym “Alain”) said, “Pessimism comes from our passions; optimism from the will. Every man who lets himself go is sad.” His wisdom tells us that negative perceptions and reactions are products of our emotions. This rings true for our drama in dealing with cultural stress. He also encourages us to use our willpower to create positive experiences. That is also true, especially reflecting on my own experience of interacting with diverse cultures and people. These days, I tend to not get as angry or frustrated from cultural shock as I used to. Rather, I make a clear decision to enjoy and study new experiences. That is willpower, and I find this mindset quite effective in allowing me to enjoy my life, anywhere I go.

When faced with new cultural stress, in Japan and elsewhere, here are the three key choices and decisions we can make to rein in our emotions, and bring out our analytical mind, and harness our willpower.

1. Replace “bad” with “interesting”

All cultures are equal, but they are not the same. In the face of stress, we often forget this simple fact. We start ranking cultures, and often say, “This never happens in my country. This is really bad. My culture is better!” In fact, this statement may hold some truth, as we always learn new ways of doing things from other cultures. But a big part of these reactions is usually caused by our emotions. In order to kick in our willpower, we can change the phrases we use in our reactions.

In my experience, I find the word “interesting” truly magical. “Wow, this is very different. Where is the difference coming from? Very interesting!” When I say this in my mind, everything suddenly turns into a great subject of intellectual pursuits. I start asking more questions instead of remaining frustrated after my secret judgments. So, say “interesting!” rather than “bad!” any time!

2. Let your emotions help you grow

We can only recognize our real selves when in contrast to things that are different from us – our nature, our values, and our style. Strong negative emotions under cultural stress are great indications of such opportunities for self-reflection. By experiencing differences, we also open ourselves up to opportunities for great inspiration. Delightful, positive emotions help us grow and change. We hate to be told to change, but love to be inspired to change.

After all, emotions are the great teacher of our life. Use them wisely!

3. Acknowledge your choice of staying or going

No matter whether it is for business or personal reasons, you made a choice to live in a foreign country. It starts and ends with this choice. We cannot deny the fact that some cultures may simply not be your cup of tea. It is a matter of preference and it is okay not to love all cultures after all. If so, you can make a decision to end your stay.

Although some people may say, “I have no choice but to stay (because of my job or partner).” This perception is not true; you always have a choice. This attitude does not help. A state of mind without clear choices available is prone to negative emotions. It creates room for some blame on a “bad” culture (going back to my first point). If the problem is that you just cannot make the choice, you can at least make a decision to avoid placing blame on anything outside you. That way, you can exercise more willpower and avoid feeling “sad” by letting yourself go, like Alain warns. Acknowledging this choice will make you happier.

Those are three simple ways you positively respond to cultural stress. In the next article, I will explain how our sensitivity to different cultures develops over time, and our ideal goal in experiencing different cultures.

Photo by takkuu

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