Given the amount of research that has been conducted on expatriate adjustment, the existence of several underlying theoretical models is not surprising. One of the most cited, the classic U-curve cross-cultural adjustment model (Oberg, 1960), describes adjustment as a process over time, starting with the honeymoon stage, followed by ‘culture shock’ (the lowest point of the ‘U’), adaptation and finally evolving into the mastery stage.
Applied to the lifecycle of expatriates’ assignment, the honeymoon stage occurs during the first weeks after arrival in the host country. This is the period of rose-tinted glasses, when everything appears new and exciting, and the assignee dwells in a mindset of a tourist. Once the expatriate finally begins to ‘live’ and work in the new country, having to deal with everyday-life problems and facing challenges of language, culture, housing, and making friends, the ‘culture shock’ stage sets in. This stage is usually characterized by frustration of not understanding the surrounding environment and people, and represents the lowest point of the adaptation curve. Following the U-curve logics, ‘culture shock’ is eventually replaced by a more positive stage of adaptation, when actual adjustment takes place. Finally, the effective functioning in a new culture reaches a mastery stage.
Viewing the adjustment process through this model is tempting, as it makes the process predictable, the symptoms recognizable and helps to identify clear coping strategies. However, is there always a ‘honeymoon’? In other words, should we consider this adjustment cycle to apply universally? Do all expatriates undergo the same stages in the same order? Or is it possible that some of the stages reoccur?
So far there is no clear-cut evidence and the results of research overviews (e.g. Black and Mendenhall, 1991; Bhaskar-Shrinivas et al., 2005) suggest that it is impossible to either fully accept or reject the U-shaped model of adjustment. Moreover, some have suggested an alternative adjustment cycle that is either J-shaped or linear (Black and Mendenhall, 1991), both implying the absence of a honeymoon period before the ‘cultural shock’. Therefore, although the U-shaped model has some empirical evidence, its stages are far from universal. In addition, a recent auto-ethnographic study by Perley-Ann Friedman and colleagues from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada found that adjustment may not always involve a single, continuous process but instead may be discontinuous. This may imply repeated ‘cultural shock’ phases or, in other words, repeated cycles of confusion and clarity.
Thus, not everyone may experience all the stages, not everyone may experience them in the same order, and not everyone may experience them only once. As Friedman summarizes, each expatriate may experience culture shock differently, as a function of preparation, assignment type and duration, and differing exposure and vulnerability to culture shocks.
Bhaskar-Shrinivas, P., Harrison, D.A., Shaffer, M.A., and Luk, D.M. (2005), ‘Input-Based and Time-Based Models of International Adjustment: Meta-Analytic Evidence and Theoretical Extensions,’ Academy of Management Journal, 48, 257–281.
Black, J., and Mendenhall, M. (1991), ‘The U-Curve Adjustment Hypothesis Revisited: A Review and Theoretical Framework,’ Journal of International Business Studies, 22, 225–246.
Oberg, K. (1960), ‘Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments,’ Practical Anthropology, 7, 177–182
Perley-Ann Friedman, Lorraine S. Dyke & Steven A. Murphy (2009): Expatriate adjustment from the inside out: An autoethnographic account. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 20(2), pp. 252-268.