I am French and lived in Madrid, London and Washington. I went to those cities with no plan to stay forever. It was either for an internship or to study. After my master in Organizational Sciences, I wanted to stay in the USA. I had to go back to Europe because my Visa was not valid anymore. I then decided to move to Germany. I was 25 and thought I could try something crazy, follow the man I love in his country. Even if I knew I would face a cultural shock when moving to Germany. I was not prepared for it.
Immigration is different than going abroad for studies or internships because there is no deadline When you face difficult time there is no magic thoughts such as “Right now it sucks but it is still ok because I am going back home in six months”. While studying or in internships, I could even count the days before my departure when I felt very bad. I went through the 4 stages of cultural shock with the relief of being back home soon. Everything is can be put in perspective when it does not seem irrevocable.
Moving to Germany was different. I knew I would stay there for an undetermined period of time. There was no “ich kann hier hänge” I can hang in there as the Germans say. I went through the 4 stages of cultural shock with the full lenght of emotional and spiritual breakthrough and breakdowns that one can have. Now I know that I am not the only one facing the same “sh*t storm.
The fours stages of cultural change
The four stages are simple to list. First comes the Honeymoon stage, then the horrible Frustration stage. After that you enter in the Adjustment stage to finally be at the Acceptance stage.
For me it is like a ride on an unknown rollercoaster. You start not really knowing if you are on a very scary one. As you start the ride you discover which level of experience you bought.
I went through my Honeymoon stage before moving to Germany.
I was thinking things like “I am going to be with the man of my life”, “I will drink beer and eat Bretzel 🙂 “, “I will learn a new language. Awesome! I love languages. It is going to be great.” and “I speak three languages. I will find a great job in no time and the company will pay for my German course…”. I spoke French, English and Spanish at that time. I was so impatient to arrive!
Yes it sounds like a naive fairy tale yet without a certain level of optimism. No one would ever move abroad 😉 Haven’t you dreamed of moving abroad at least once in your life? Did you do it?
My Honeymoon phase stopped with my first day in Germany.
I entered the so called Frustration phase but let me rename it the blackout phase or the “what the heck is happening to me phase”. I was thrown into cold water with no means to stay warm. Luckily, my german boyfriend was there to welcome me at the train station. So I did not have to face the fact that everything was in German. A language a did not speak yet.
I was mostly exposed to Germany in my history class which means that the second world war and a very harsh spoken German were my references. Luckily, I also made 2 trips to Germany years before immigrating there. I had the pleasure to be welcomed by a friend and her family near Dresden and even in Monchengladbach.
The shock came when I went to register to the basic A2.1 German course. No one can speak or understand anything with this level. I remember this woman who seemed very unfriendly. She only spoke German. !?!? Moi pas comprendre !?!? Looking at her, my eyes wide open and not understanding a thing. I couldn’t even say “Ich verstehe nicht” at that time. So I tried with a smile “Francais? Español? English?” Her response was something like “sjkd sfjoif rid Deutsch!”. I thought to myself. How am I supposed to talk to you in German? I am here to register to a F****ing A2.1 class. Again, I am not the only one facing this kind of treatments.
I started to pay attention to her mimik and gestures trying to understand what she wanted from me. The simple registration document to take a level test with took me hours to fill in. Everything was written in German. Not really helpful to learn faster. I started to second guess everything people wanted from me. This created a huge amount of stress.
During the first two years, I was frustrated because I wanted to speak with people. I was giving my best to learn. This frustration fueled my desire to learn German as fast as possible. I couldn’t tolerate to not communicate with people. I just love speaking too much. I also know many people who just give up because nothing is done to support you psychologically at the very beginning and not even later. The German style is very harsh in this sense. Integrate yourself please but we won’t help more than offering you some classes. Language is important but it is not everything.
I was told that German happily speak to you in English if you cannot speak German. Well, this did not happen to me. The people I encountered outside my boyfriends circle were more often like “You are here speak German”. I think it is the reaction of many locals and monolinguals. They expect you to speak their language without the phase of learning it. If I were German and moved to France. I would probably face the same problems. This is the international aspect of being a foreigner in a new country. Some people expect that you speak their language without knowing your story. I sometimes thought of wearing a badge with the number of months I have been learning German. So that people would be more aware of my current struggles.
Having people behave with me as if I were either stupid or deaf enraged me. I probably spoke more languages than they do. I remember my first weeks as junior consultant when my German was not that great. I received many comments about my poor grammar or accent. It hurted me at that time because they never offered to correct me. They were happy to criticize but not ready to support my learning. If you are there now. You are not alone and you can do it 🙂 I also had beautiful encounters of clients correcting my emails when I was suppose to write them for them. Most of the people who helped me were immigrants or had some exposure to learning a new language.
The frustration stage is very challenging on a personal level. No one seems to understand it better than someone who went through it. I had no one to talk about it at that time. I was so exhausted by learning German that I just did not want to mingle after work. I could not relate to many people because they were not at the same stage in their life. Expect for few classmates who were going through the same difficult stages.
The process toward Adjustment
I lived with this frustration until I spoke German correctly and started to understand the new norms I had to deal with. My self-talk was negative at times. Yet, I pep-talked myself with sentences like “I am gonna get there. I will be one of those who speak German better than some Germans.” It was a wishful thinking but dreaming big has never hurt anyone.
I learned about the German way of living, their cultural accepted behavior and paradigms. I realized that local dialects also impregnate the culture. The Schwab are not like the people in the north or the east. They are “einzigartig”. I still face things that upset me. I could not accept that I was not considered for jobs even if I had a master degree. The excuse was always your German is not perfect. How am I suppose to improve my German if I stay home learning in books? I decided to use any opportunity to learn German and even created a mastermind group to study and practice German. I talk about it here: https://acgraber.com/the-power-of-motivation-groups/ I even got a first job in a small company working in the office doing stuff that would normaly bore me to death but doing it in German made it incredibly engaging. I even ended up helping the company digitalize there processes because I could not stop problem solving things that could be done better. I was admired for my courage to move to Germany and learn the language. I even received positive feedbacks about my german level after 1,5 years of learning.
I also realized that the role of the women in south west Germany is restricted to some specific areas. The kitchen, the children and “putzen” (cleaning). I thought it was a family thing but I soon realized that other women were faced with similar expectations. It was regional. Do women have a brain after giving birth? Apparently not im Ländle. They must stop working full time to care for the babies because we all know that women are the BEST CARE GIVERS ON EARTH. This is one thing I do not want to adjust to. I want to freely decide if I want to stop working or not. If I want to breastfeed or not. My body, my life = my rules. I will probably write something about that or make a podcast episode about it. A great article about sexism in the workplace: Justifying gender discrimination in the workplace: The mediating role of motherhood myths https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5760038/
I slowly started to adjust and to understand the unsaid rules. I had to figure out what was polite or rude, understand the given roles of men and women, bosses and employees. I also started to take things less personally and understood that people are relying on their cultural norms when they deal with me. It does not mean they hate you or they are rude. They play the game of life with different rules than the one you learned. You do to.
The acceptance stage
To be honest, I think I am entering the acceptance stage. I do like a pandelum, one day I adjust the other day I accept. One day, I will have made my final move toward acceptance. In the books they define it as the capacity to deal with both cultures without feeling stressed. You start to appreciate both your homeland and your new country. You see the positive and the negative in both. Now, I understand why locals act the way they do and even start to act like them. Stop dreaming the Kehrwoche is not my thing. I also remember the country I was raised in through food, readings, calls with my family and songs.
I can work in teams with different cultural backgrounds and understand where we can misunderstand each other. It is something I could already do earlier because I lived abroad. I now appreciate the situation of being the only foreigner in a team. I stopped judging Germans for being themselves and I even start to love them. Yes, you can. Even if they are crazy about structure and having a process for everything. They are also the best optimizers I know. and that my friend, I would have never said before.
Your turn to comment!
Now, I am curious to learn from you.
- Where do you find yourself in this wonderful roller coaster? ( Honeymoon stage, then the horrible Frustration stage. After that you enter in the Adjustment stage to finally be at the Acceptance stage.)
- What are the 3 things you learned or are learning about yourself?
Here are mines: I am oscillating between Adjustment and acceptance.
- I learned patience
- I learned to better manage my self-talk
- I learned to never give up
Now, It is your turn. Write your answer as a comment.