How to Adapt to a New Culture or Country

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 In the past 5 years alone I have lived in 3 different countries and 7 different houses, I have lived in Spain (Madrid), northern and southern England, Nashville, and near the beach in Florida…

  • What have I learned?
  • What did I do completely wrong?
  • What differences have I noticed?

Let’s dive into all of this and more…

Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an expert, or to have adapted perfectly… I have made mistakes, and I don’t always practice what I preach, but hopefully you can get some value from my experiences.

Stop Comparing Things to Your “Bubble.”

One of the first things that happens when you go to a new place (even on vacation), is that you compare everything to how it is back home… the tiny little bubble that you have experienced will represent the norm to you… you will likely feel that the values, beliefs, habits and activities that YOU were brought up with were the right ones, and therefore everyone else’s were wrong…

Well guess what, that is what everyone thinks….

This means that you will compare food, quality of life, weather, people’s habits, beliefs, healthcare systems, roads and everything in between.

If there is one piece of advice I can give you to prevent you from being miserable and disliked, it is to enforce a zero tolerance on comparisons from your new place compared to where you were brought up as a child.

In my experience, it is almost impossible to convince someone that their norm is inferior to your alternative… and viceversa. This is often strengthened even further for people with “small town syndrome” who haven’t travelled much or at all.. as they literally know no better/different.

Let’s take sports for example… if I had a dollar for each American who just doesn’t get “soccer”… but the reality is that it is no surprise that they don’t like soccer… afterall, billions of dollars per year in media and advertising are spent on US based sports promotions… and viceversa.

Sport is part of our culture, and so only if you remove the media, the promotion, the schoolyard banter, the memories, the watching it with your dad as a child… can you make an objective decision… but of course, that is impossible, so instead you will state something as a fact without an ounce of objectivity.

What’s that? the food that you had once a week as a child is a food that you like and this new food that you have never tried before seems disgusting? Well that’s hardly surprising…

I personally just bite my tongue these days, but when I was younger and living in Spain, I would often claim that the food was better in the UK (haha, imagine that!), or that the beauracracy in Spain, or the religious hypocrisy was awful… but the reality is that complaining about it achieved nothing, and likely, it annoyed the people who were from Spain and knew no different.

I even had a heated argument with a man in Madrid who claimed that bull fighting wasn’t cruel at all… the fact of the matter is that while he more than likely was completely wrong, he was brought up with bull fighting, it is all he knows, and so it is perfectly normal and fun to him.

Left or right side of the road?

Aluminum vs aluminium?

Soccer or Baseball?

Who cares?! Getting defensive or argumentative is not going to achieve anything, and at the end of the day, you have chosen to live/visit this place, so a certain level of respect should be afforded it. Also, if everything in your hometown is sooooo much better, then why not get on the next plane and go back?

I should stress that these are not off-topic,  I am more than happy to go along with conversations when other people bring these topics up, but I don’t initiate them, and I don’t get defensive or argumentative when discussing it.

Tip: It is not your role or job to “fix” the new place you are living in.

Summary: Look at all the new elements as interesting, different, refreshing or quirky… embrace them… and remember, it is not a competition, and if you are choosing to live there then either do something about it or forget about it.

Find Your Niche

I recently saw an article from a guy who had moved from Texas to the Uk, and it was filled with reasons why the US sucks… but for most developed countries, there are plenty of niche options. For example, non of the complaints this person had exist in Florida.

Make a list of all the things you like/dislike, and in somewhere like Europe or the US, there is almost certainly somewhere that fits that criteria perfectly.

The same goes for the types of people you want to be around.. I have fired best friends in the past, so if you have friends who drain your energy, then go niche instead and get new friends.

For example, I decided I didn’t want to drink alcohol anymore as of late 2011, so I forced myself to try a new hobby (modern board gaming)… I now have numerous groups of new friends who would rather spend an evening gaming than in a bar or club, and so very few of them drink at all… coincidence? Not at all.

Likewise, complaining about the heat all year is perhaps a sign that you should move further north, or nearer to the beach… not everyone can just get up and move, but it is often more do-able than you make think.

Moving Will Be a Lot More Expensive and Hard Work Than You Think

I have moved house a LOT… I have had an entire 5-bedroom house of belongings shipped across oceans, and I have put all my worldly belongings in a suitcase and started fresh… one thing that remains constant is that it is always more expensive than you would expect, and more stress/effort.

Outsource as much as possible, if in doubt, sell or get rid of belongings you are not using, and take baby steps for the first month. It will be worth it.

Sidenote: Always rent for at least a year before you buy… the realities of day to day living can be VERY different than the 7 day vacation you just had.

Embrace Your Icebreaker

Rarely a day goes by where someone doesn’t ask me about my accent, I have spoken with other expats who find this incredibly annoying, some British people I have spoken to who live here go as far as to find it a daily chore… but personally I love it… in fact, my wife has noticed that I almost always find a way to mention to the checkout person at the grocery store that I am from England.

Embrace this, it is the perfect icebreaker, and a great way to make new friends. I would go as far as to create a 20 second “elevator pitch” on how you came to live in this new place… for example, I often say “two years ago I came to Nashville on business… and stayed for pleasure (haha), I met my now wife, we lived in Nashville for a year, and then moved to St Petersburg to try living near the beach, and we absolutely love it here”.

They are not getting a life story, but it gets across the main points effectively and efficiently, which is important for something you are likely to do a few hundred times per year.

Learn the Lingo

My most important advice for living in a new place is to make a real effort to learn the language… during my time in Spain I was terrified of making mistakes, and so I didn’t dive into the language as I should have. This drastically affected my time there… so learn from my mistakes.

But what if you are moving to a place where they speak the same language but use different pronunciations or slang terms?

Personally I am a big believer in making an effort to be understood… for example, I now pronounce “Z” as “zee” instead of “zed”… not a big deal, but is it worth not being understood every now and then for the sake of a small change? Not at all…

Does that mean that I go around saying “howdy ya’ll”? No, not at all, but likewise, I drop a lot of my regional slang from Northern England… I know many people will claim that keeping those things is fun and unique, and to some extent you are right… but after 7 years of not being understood very well in Spain, and for someone who relies on effective communication for a career, I find that making the effort to be understood is worth the time and energy.

Having to repeat your order two or three times in a row in a restaurant gets tiring pretty quickly, so making an effort to adapt your speech or pronunciations is often well worth the time.

On a sidenote, we have made British friends who live in the US who can barely be understood… while it may seem amusing at first, I am sure it can be very frustrating for both sides after a while.

Summary

They say that travel broadens the mind, and I couldn’t agree more… but if you travel with your blinkers on, and start comparing everything to your little bubble then you will be left frustrated and dissatisfied.

Embrace the change, find your niche, take action on the areas that you can change, and ignore the rest… and remember, no two people are the same, embrace your differences, learn, and have fun. Life is too damn short not to.

Dean

  • http://www.JohnMichaelMorgan.com John Morgan

    Nothing sounds more strange to me than you saying “ya’ll”. But you do it well and it’s always funny that you get excited saying it :)

    I love that you’re always up for trying new things. Otherwise you’d have never known the glorious nectar that is a cherry slushy :)

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    • http://www.facebook.com/deanhunt Dean Hunt

      John, haha… the problem with each time I tried to say “ya’ll” was the fact that I instantly burst out laughing directly afterwards….

      Ref the glory of the cherry slushie… it is something that will always be deer to my heart, especially when I drank so much that I started giggling about everything. I blame the sugar.

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  • http://REItips.com/ jp moses

    Fun post, Dean.  Glad to hear of your practical approach to embedding yourself into a culture and being friendly with it, without losing yourself.  Sounds like a really great balance.

    Too bad you moved from Nashville. Tennessee misses you. And so does John Morgan.  ;-)  

    …jp

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    • http://www.facebook.com/deanhunt Dean Hunt

      JP, I am sure I will revisit Nashville often… I met a LOT of great people there.

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  • Diana

    Great post, great advice! One thing I experience here in Florida (north of Tampa) is all the transplants telling us how they “did it up north”. Well, now ya’ll are in the south. And I say that in my best hometown Chicago, Midwest accent ;) .
    Diana

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    • http://www.facebook.com/deanhunt Dean Hunt

      Diana, haha… I am near Tampa also.  (Small world)

      The issue is that people are naturally going to defend their “norm”… so insulting Tampa can be like insulting their entire upbringing, family etc…

      It can be easy to do at times, especially during frustrating days, but I really try my best to bite my tongue, let people have their rants and stereotypes, and just laugh it off.

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      • Diana

        Ahhh yes, laughter is the best medicine. And probably the best revenge!

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  • Billy

    Dean,..your a likable guy no matter how wrong other cultures are :) .  good post

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    • http://www.facebook.com/deanhunt Dean Hunt

      Thanks Billy… I hope all is well buddy.

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  • http://www.webmarketingoutlaw.com/blog Craig Dewe

    Cool post… reminds me that I had to change my name in Spain for the Spanish speakers. After some time being Juan, Jose, Paco and other randoms I finally settled on my middle name Martin as they could pronounce that :)

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    • http://www.facebook.com/deanhunt Dean Hunt

      Craig… haha.

      Do you have any tips you would add to the article? As you also spent time in Madrid during the time I was there.

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  • Barryd

    Excellent post Dean and excellent advice – very well said, great tip about stopping comparing things with your bubble, spot on! (And you don’t drink alcohol anymore – well, that is news!, good for you)

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