My Four Phases of Culture Shock in Switzerland

I’ve been an expat for one and a half years now, and had never before sat down to clear my thoughts and feelings on living in Switzerland. It’s not my first time abroad. However, it’s the first time that I left my country without knowing when I’d be going back. I didn’t care about not knowing one single soul in the whole country, nor did I care about my lack of french knowledge. I hardly blinked when it came to leave the comfortable familiarity behind and dive into the unknown. I was going to conquer the World (or at least, Switzerland).

The truth is – culture shock hit me deeper than I thought. It’s not only about learning how to copy with different social norms – i.e. learning where to park my bike and where not to (something I unfortunately learned the hard way). Culture shock continues long after becoming familiar with my new life.

Honeymoon

View of the Terraces - Lavaux, Switzerland

The Honeymoon phase is full of excitement and euphoria. You feel you can grab the World in your hands and do whatever you want. Every day is a new adventure – new faces, a different restaurant, a hidden shop, a cute small side street with boulangeries selling the best baguette you have ever tried. The public transport is reliable, the city is peaceful, clean and safe and people are kind and respectful.

You smile while you walk. Life is good. Actually, scratch that – life is amazing. You are so glad you chose to move and can’t imagine life any other way.

Frustration

Vevey, Switzerland

The shine starts to fade away. You realize that there are actually less than 5 bars where you can go to – either because of the crowds or because of the prices. It’s the fourth time you try asking for a glass of water with your coffee and you receive an arrogant look from the waiter. Maybe even a clueless arrogant look. You’re grammatical mistakes bothers them, and having to repeat the same word 10 times upsets you, too. You go to a hairdresser and come out with a messy cut (that doesn’t resemble a tiny bit what you initially had in mind) and realize that this trend disaster has left you completely broke.

At this point, you start to get familiar with the disadvantages of living abroad. You feel alone and misunderstood, disillusioned, frustrated and angry. Why did you ever even think this move would be a good idea?

Understanding

Water Fountain, Lausanne (Switzerland)

After a while, things start to look brighter – you are adjusting to your new home country. Those things that used to annoy you, are now small and insignificant. You start to see the advantages of having an early start on Saturdays and venture into new activities you never thought you enjoy before. You have set a routine and feel comfortable with it.

You understand the cultural differences with your home country and are learning how to deal with them.

Biculturalism

Sunset in Lausanne (Switzerland)

Although I have adopted some local habits and am adjusting to the new culture, I still don’t feel that I belong here – I feel like a foreigner. I guess the main reason for this is my ridiculous lack of french skills. I truly need to work on that! I envy those that have become bicultural – they are aware of where they came from but have fully embraced swiss culture. They never feel out-of-place.

This phase that takes a lot of understanding and an open mind.

Note: At the point of writing this post, I was in living in Switzerland experiencing the third phase – Understanding. Five months later, I was transferred to London. I have fond memories of living in Switzerland and hope to move back again in the future. Maybe this means that I finally did reach biculturalism – despite my french!

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37 Responses to “My Four Phases of Culture Shock in Switzerland”

  1. MeriApril 6, 2011 at 10:49 PM #

    Living in Spain, I definitely remember the "frustration" as I got used to the culture. Like when everything closes from 2-4 for siesta? Or how no one eats in public unless they are in a cafe? Or how the old ladies glare at you for showing bare arms even if its 97 degrees out? But it was shortlived, that frustration- then I acclimated and had a great time! I always enjoy meeting locals by starting up conversations with bartenders, baristas, pharmacists, and then returning to visit them often. They usually have other friends that do the same and pretty soon you know lots of people!

  2. TexaGermaNadianApril 6, 2011 at 11:01 PM #

    Great post! I think this is the perfect way to describe the steps of living abroad. I would just mix in a little bit of frustration now and then, you know, just to liven up the experience and you don't forget you are in a foreign country, haha. Germany really likes to do that to us. Just when we think we have it all 'down', BAM something frustrating and weird comes along, lol

  3. Lifebeginsat30tyApril 6, 2011 at 11:10 PM #

    Step 5: is when you get so used to your new culture that when you go to your home country, you feel weird there too! Yes, the expat life surely is a strange one. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I thought coming to the UK wouldn't be that different from the US, but boy was I wrong! Like the other day I told someone I wanted 'regular' coffee and got this blank stare. Turns out you have to say 'filter', even though it could have been from a french press. Which is actually called a cafetiere here? See, it continues! In a couple of months you'll wonder how you could ever leave. Strange how that happens ;)

  4. KatherinaApril 6, 2011 at 11:14 PM #

    @Meri haha yes, I'm sure the 2-4 closing time is strange for foreigners in Spain… it sometimes made me feel frustrated, too! I mean, seriously, some shops only re-open at 5pm !!

  5. KatherinaApril 6, 2011 at 11:15 PM #

    @TexaGermaNadianhaha, yes, Switzerland likes to do that too… just when you think you've "got it", something new comes along!

  6. KatherinaApril 6, 2011 at 11:17 PM #

    @Lifebeginsat30ty I had read about the 5th stage. I haven't experienced it yet though! But I can picture it: if I'd move back to Spain some day, I'd be annoyed at the unreliable bus schedules, the traffic, the noise, the 40ºC in june, and, as Meri said – the closing of shops from 2 to 4 !! I'd be used to swiss efficiency :)

  7. Brenna [fabuleuxdestin]April 6, 2011 at 11:54 PM #

    I can definitely relate – I went through all of this when I moved to France. But now I feel I'm really acclimated! It took a long, long, time though. This is my third stay in France!

    I think worse than culture shock it reverse-culture shock! I'm already dreading returning to the US and going back to the way things were – after I have changed !

  8. travelroachApril 7, 2011 at 12:03 AM #

    I think one of the stages is getting really drunk all the time, and wishing you're somewhere else.

  9. ChristineApril 7, 2011 at 2:31 AM #

    I can definitely relate–although it is MUCH harder when you don't know the language! It's been a lot easier to acclimate in Australia than it was in France just because I can communicate here without thinking twice.

  10. MichelleApril 7, 2011 at 3:40 AM #

    I haven't lived abroad for long, but I can relate to the lack of language knowledge. Once while visiting family in Geneva for an extended period of time I had group of primary school children laugh out loud in my face on the playground because I didn't understand french. It made me feel about the size of an ant.

  11. Eurotrip TipsApril 7, 2011 at 4:19 AM #

    I also relate to this! I experienced every single one of these steps when I lived in London. The worst part is actually having to leave while you are in the middle of the last part – when you feel like you really belong. Trust me, you never get over it! :)

  12. KristinaApril 7, 2011 at 1:37 PM #

    I have lived in the US, Singapore and now Switzerland and I love your post, because I totally can relate to it. Really nicely done! And great to meet a fellow Swiss (expat) blogger, greetings from Bern to Lausanne :)
    Have a lovely day, Kristina

  13. VaishVijayApril 7, 2011 at 5:38 PM #

    Even after living abroad for 9 years, I go through all the stages at one time or the other. The most challenging part is to adapt at home (country) when I go for annual holidays. Sometimes I feel as if I've lost the roots!

  14. Debbie BeardsleyApril 7, 2011 at 7:24 PM #

    I enjoyed reading your post and even though I have never lived abroad I can see the progression of steps. Sounds like it is a natural progression. The issue is how long does it take before you don't feel like a foreigner?

    Great insight though and a great reminder to be more patient and understanding of expats living in the US!

  15. RebeccaApril 7, 2011 at 8:18 PM #

    I am thankful for growing up with as much of a connection to the US as I have, because otherwise I would probably be in the same boat. I only get frustrated with certain forms of politics and their way of thought that is brought to the people, such as conservatism etc, or the ignorance for anything but themselves and their own country. I think, moving to a part of the world that calls French their main language, I would be struggling too. I just can't seem to improve my French for the life of me.

  16. KatherinaApril 7, 2011 at 10:53 PM #

    @Brenna [fabuleuxdestin] I guess that will be the worst of all… going back to where you were before, without being the one you were before.

  17. KatherinaApril 7, 2011 at 10:57 PM #

    @travelroach that's the worst phase – depression!

  18. KatherinaApril 7, 2011 at 10:59 PM #

    @Christine particularly France is quite tough for foreigners I think – the french give us a hard time to pronounce things correctly! Things are definitely easier in Australia.. oh I'm so jealous!

  19. KatherinaApril 7, 2011 at 11:00 PM #

    @Michelle kids can be so cruel….

  20. KatherinaApril 7, 2011 at 11:01 PM #

    @Eurotrip Tips I'm starting to dread that moment…

  21. KatherinaApril 7, 2011 at 11:02 PM #

    @Kristina Hi Kristina! US- Singapore – Switzerland… there's a whole lot of culture shock in there! nice meeting you neighbor!

  22. KatherinaApril 7, 2011 at 11:04 PM #

    @VaishVijay I feel a bit lost too when I go back home over holidays… but mine is not particularly a bad feeling. I think when you're only going there over holidays you don't have that much time to let the culture shock hit you… whenever you're starting to wonder what the hell you're doing there, you already have to go back!

  23. KatherinaApril 7, 2011 at 11:07 PM #

    @Debbie Beardsley I guess the time that takes to stop feeling like a foreigner depends a lot on each person and how much you are willing to integrate in the culture. I admit that my plan of not learning french at the beginning of my stay was not precisely the best one to integrate with the locals…

  24. KatherinaApril 7, 2011 at 11:11 PM #

    @Rebecca That's right. Probably, the more you know in advance of the culture before moving, the smoother the adjustment… but you can't really avoid all the shocks I guess!

  25. WombatApril 8, 2011 at 2:25 PM #

    I have just had my breakfast coffee, Katherina, but already I want my lunch to be the wonderful-looking filets de perche. Sweet!

    Fascinating post, BTW. My experience of moving to the US from Australia has been nothing but a dream…any problems have been entirely of my own making :-)But I completely get your phases.

  26. SophiaApril 8, 2011 at 4:13 PM #

    Nice to see a post on Switzerland !!

  27. cailen ascherApril 8, 2011 at 5:06 PM #

    very interesting. i was in paris for a summer so i think i was mostly in the "honeymoon" phase with momentary hints of frustration : )

    tgif!

  28. VivianApril 11, 2011 at 1:17 AM #

    I just found your blog through the blog hop (for the love of blogs) and I’m so glad I did! What an amazing life you have, to be able to travel and experience the world. Half of me is German (long story) but I was born and raised in Colombia. Living in Utah (out of all places…) To answer your question’ although I’m way past all those acculturation stages after living in the US for more than 15 years, I still am the “foreigner.” For as long as I live my heart will belong to Colombia.
    What’s your hobby? Find a group that does what you like to do and join it. You will come out of there making friends that you really would care about because they have the same likes, ideas and goals as you. Good luck! Can’t wait what’s next for you so I’m following! :)

  29. yasmeen @ wandering spiceApril 27, 2011 at 11:51 PM #

    i think your stages are accurate, but i think “acclimation” should include more acceptance, relaxation and feeling a bit more natural at its most mature stage.

    i moved from the US to the Netherlands to Australia, all of which are quite different, and have traveled extensively. maybe since i’m middle eastern but grew up in the US (and my family was raised with European ideals), i feel a bit immune to culture shock, since i experienced several distinct ones growing up.

    even though the “shock” isn’t there, i’ve definitely experienced frustration, feeling separated (alienated even). the only thing to do is 1) try to accept cultural norms there and not compare them to your own, but 2) unapologetically be yourself. at first i felt like i had to hate the US to be accepted by anybody in the Netherlands. then i realized that was ridiculous, and that by instead being myself, i could spread a positive message. good luck!
    yasmeen @ wandering spice recently posted..mandarin passion fruit pavlova

  30. TonyaMay 1, 2011 at 11:28 PM #

    Oh wow, I couldn’t agree with this more! I hadn’t read this post before. I would say you pretty much pin-pointed it. I would say in Munich I’m somewhere between 3 and 4 haha…as sometimes the German ways still don’t quite settle with this Floridian. Oh well though, it’s biergarten season, and thats something I can only get here :) So I am enjoying the Spring again!
    Tonya recently posted..Munich Restaurants- Villa Dante

  31. Runaway BritMay 4, 2011 at 1:13 PM #

    I enjoyed reading this post and really identify with the phases. I don’t think that I ever passed the frustration phase during three years in Vietnam, I had some aspects of understanding but even after asking countless people to correct my pronunciation I could still not get a taxi driver to understand where I wanted to go when I said my address and I never managed to buy a bus ticket that didn’t end up in some kind of downgrade!

    I feel a lot more accepted in Sweden where I now live but I think that Swedish culture is very similar to British so it’s much easier to acclimatise.
    Runaway Brit recently posted..Valborg – Sweden Welcomes the Spring

  32. LindsayMay 23, 2011 at 8:43 AM #

    This is the first I have learned of these 4 stages. I have been in Denmark for 5 months now, and think I am still stuck in stage 2. Do these stages have an estimated time frame for how long you should spend in each stage, because I am looking forward to moving on to stage 3!
    Lindsay recently posted..Does It Get Any Weirder Than This

  33. JenniferOctober 11, 2011 at 3:55 PM #

    Hello All,
    This is my second time living and studying in the Philippines and for those who have been here before, you will understand how hard it is to live here. The environment can seem so accomodating and hostile at the same time. I am still at stage two but eventually it will wear off. I guess part of my resistance to acclimate is because I do not want to experience Reverse Culture Shock a second time when I go back home.

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