Have you ever seen a chameleon? It is a fascinating animal and an absolute master of adaptability.
Chameleons possess a host of physical adaptations which help them survive and blend into their environment.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Leon C. Megginson on Charles Darwin‘s theory “On the origin of species“
However, we’re not here today to talk about reptiles!
I want to introduce you to a « cultural chameleon », Wiebke Homborg.
Wiebke lived abroad for a total of 22 years and has experienced expat life from multiple perspectives from an early age. She decided to use this personal experience to provide intercultural coaching and training.
We had an insightful chat about life abroad, experiencing culture shocks and overcoming cultural differences.
Can you tell us more about your story and your intercultural journey?
I was born in Belgium to German parents and have lived in the United States and Spain, Chile, Mexico and Germany. Having grown up abroad and on the move makes me an “Adult Third Culture Kid” (ATCK). We are often considered “cultural chameleons” which is why I decided to name my business as Intercultural Trainer & Expat Coach CHAMELEON where I support professionals and their families through all phases of expatriation.
I have had a few intercultural relationships in my younger years, but then I decided to marry my soulmate and fellow ATCK with a very similar background as mine. We have been on an expat adventure to Mexico together where our first son was born. After Mexico and two turbulent years going back and forth between Bremen, Paris, Santiago and Miami, we decided to raise our children in Germany to offer them more stability and the joy of having the family close by. While we enjoy the peaceful neighborhood and nature around us, we never stop dreaming of moving abroad again one day.
You’ve lived in 6 countries already and experienced culture shocks multiple times. Can you tell us where they come from?
Culture shock is a feeling of disorientation when moving to a different cultural environment. It is closely linked to migratory grief, where you not only grieve the physical losses (missing the family, etc.) but also the abstract losses (such as homeland, status, social identity).
“It’s a very individual experience and it can range from not happening at all to lasting several months.”
As my graphic shows, culture shock includes:
- Stress due to the strain of mental adjustment
- Loss & homesickness
- Feeling rejected by members of new culture
- Confusion about your own role, expectations, values, identity
- Surprise, fear & indignation when you realize the full extent of cultural differences
- Helplessness when it’s all too much to cope with
These shocks can also have a strong psychological impact because they question some of our values and beliefs. What are your tips to cope with anxiety and stress?
Yes, culture shock is real and can cause quite an amount of anxiety and stress. My recommendation is to acknowledge that this is a very normal part of the acculturation journey.
It is a very unpleasant phase and we need to be self-compassionate about our struggle and double up on our self-care:
- Seek support among family and friends or a coach, talk about your distress with your partner.
- Start building your own new local network. When you are in a multicultural relationship and facing culture shock within your partner’s home country, even though it is nice that you can fall back on his network, you might feel the need to conquer a place by yourself. Be brave and take the first steps.
- Stay curious, get out and explore the new city and country. The more you learn about the culture, the more you will be able to appreciate it.
- Cultivate your favorite customs from home. When homesickness hits you, apart from calling your loved ones at home you can try cooking your favourite dish from home. It’s called comfort food for a reason!
- Give yourself time for the climatic adjustment as well, it is often underestimated.
- Practice reframing the situation by reminding yourself of all the benefits of your journey: deeper insights into the culture, broadened horizon, intercultural competence, a boost for your personal development, increased self-esteem, flexibility, more serenity and resilience.
- Picture yourself in a few months from now when you will have made wonderful new friends, have lived extraordinary experiences and adventures and your language skills have improved significantly.
In an intercultural couple, partners have to face these shocks in their intimacy. What do you think are the keys to overcome their differences?
Not giving up so easily, having patience, forgiving any miscommunication, laughing about it, staying curious and open to learn more about the partner, not jumping to quick conclusions, asking twice if you understood well and if you are understood, giving each other grace and practicing compassion for the partner’s adaptation process.
“From what I have observed in my friends’ and clients’ intercultural relationships, full commitment is key.”
This counts for all relationships, but is especially crucial for intercultural ones: become aware of your own values, beliefs and preconceptions and discuss them with your partner.
If for example tolerance is one of your core values, define tolerance more precisely because it can have many different interpretations and manifestations.
Usually, multicultural couples become experts in building bridges between their cultural or personal differences. I have witnessed great creativity and admired their wealth of resources and coping strategies.
We tend to think that culture shocks only happen when we move to a foreign country. But going back to your home country after living abroad for a long time can cause reverse culture shocks. Can you tell us more about that and your own experience?
Absolutely, our experiences and personal growth abroad have shaped our identity and we find ourselves no longer fitting back in. It’s yet another big transition process where we grieve who and what we leave behind including the person that we were in that place. And again, it is a wonderful opportunity to reinvent ourselves and grow even more.
“The process of readjustment at home after a longer stay abroad is still largely underestimated.”
In total, I have already returned to Germany three times and each time it was different – depending on the life phase and the place I landed.
If I had known back then what I know now about transition, culture shock, re-entry shock and Third Culture Kids, and if I had received specialized support, then I would have been spared some detours and some very rough bits.
And yet I am grateful for every single experience. I have grown enormously from them and I would not be the person I am today. I have therefore made it my mission to support expats not only through expatriation but also guide them through their re-entry process.
With your work as trainer and coach, you get to meet individuals who need to overcome cultural differences in their personal and professional lives. How do you help them with these challenges?
In my work I draw from my life and professional experience and combine it with the evidence-based foundations of intercultural training and coaching to be able to support my clients in a professional way. I offer workshops, blended learning courses, webinars as well as individual and group coaching both live and online.
My clients appreciate a great variety of exercises that help them become aware of their own cultural imprint, their values, unconscious biases, beliefs and needs. I provide cultural insights that can be universal or very specific.
We identify and practice appropriate coping and communication skills. I provide emotional support and guidance through difficult phases of transition, decision-making and grief.
Anything you want to add?
It’s all about your mindset: “Always expect the unexpected!”
Do you want to find out more?
- To have an example of culture shock, I encourage you to watch this YouTube video where Wiebke shares her own experience about unpunctual friends in Chile and her personal reframing technique to truly appreciate the Chilean concept of time.
- If you want to discover Chameleon Coaching, have a look at Wiebke’s website: https://chameleon-coaching.com/en/
- You can also read inspiring intercultural love stories here and here to see how couples around the world overcame their own culture shocks.