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Can Business Travelers Have Culture Shock?

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According to InterNations, culture shock is the phenomenon where a person may feel nervous or alienated after realizing how foreign their new culture is after relocating. Individuals or families who are relocating are usually familiarized with the four phases of adjustment: preparation, honeymoon phase, culture shock, and adjustment.  


The concept of culture shock is typically associated with long-term assignments. What some people may not realize is that culture shock can also be experienced by business travelers. While expatriates are educated in ways to prevent culture shock, business travelers rarely receive the same treatment. The effects of this emotional challenge can begin appearing in the work of the employee. If left unaddressed, the wasted time, lack of motivation, impatience, and miscommunications of culture shock will result in losses at work.


Often, business travelers work on assignments in global teams. Global workforce development can help mitigate risk by training the entire team. Often, teammates can help one another work through challenging cultural differences by sharing their personal experiences or providing reminders of what was taught in training.

Image of business travelers passing through Grand Central Station

For global teams that are culturally aware, the shock of working with another group that is not culturally sensitive can be harmfully jarring. Employees may feel that they are not being heard or understood by the team that lacks proper training. A fractured team will face many obstacles that could have been prevented with training. This disparity is known to bring operations to a halt, costing companies thousands of dollars.  


Another consideration is reverse culture shock. This occurs upon the return to the native culture. After living in another culture, one often finds that views and values no longer align with friends and families at "home." This can cause feelings of disorientation and uncertainty. Business travelers who spend time in various cultures are forced to continually flip between cultural norms. When proper preventative training is absent, this practice is exhausting. Neglected business travelers may begin to lose passion for their assignments because of this pratice. Cross-cultural assignments are an investment for companies that cannot afford to be lost.


In the book, The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti, he lists nine variables that can intensify the repatriation process:

  1. Was reentry voluntary or involuntary?
  2. Was reentry expected or unexpected?
  3. Reentry may be easier for older businesspeople who have experienced more major life transitions.
  4. Does the repatriate have previous reentry experience? The first time is often the most challenging.
  5. How long was the assignment? Longer stays are more challenging to return from.
  6. How immersed in the foreign culture did the repatriate become during their assignment?
  7. How familiar and supportive is the reentry environment?
  8. How frequently did the repatriate interact with their connections at home while they were on their assignment?
  9. How different is the home culture from the assignment culture?


Whatever your particular stage or role may be, know that there are resources available to help the adjustment process. Cultural shock is a unique challenge for everyone due to the wide variety of personal values and experiences that employees have. No two business travelers will feel the same way at the same point in the assignment, so preventative care and quick solutions are essential for companies in order to properly care for their traveling employees. Even though business travelers may still have plans to return to their home culture by the end of the week, it doesn’t mean that they need less training than long-term assignees!


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