Transitions Across Cultures
This quick, easy-to-understand, helpful guide for those who are traveling abroad or friends and family of cross-cultural sojourners. The Revised Edition includes more resources to help readers expand their understanding of transitions.
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About The Book
No two travelers have exactly the same transition, and this book is designed to reach across the breadth of experiences. This book has important insights for you whether you are an international business traveler, an expat, a study abroad student, NGO worker, or are deployed abroad for your religious or government organization.
What’s more, Transitions Across Cultures is also written for the sponsors, coaches, family, and friends of those transitioning abroad or returning home. It can be very difficult to know how to walk well alongside those who are experiencing these changes, and this book makes it easier to understand the challenges they face.
This book is intentionally concise, intended to be readable on your international flight or in an afternoon at a coffee shop. The revised edition connects the reader to great resources that can help them navigate the rewarding but challenging journey of culture shock and transition. The publisher has also made supporting materials available online.
Cross-cultural transition can be both amazing and difficult. Transitions Across Cultures presents a practical, easy-to-read overview of major themes that are important for those traveling or moving abroad. Culture, culture shock, transition, factors that intensify the experience, and reentry are all presented conversationally to make these important theoretical insights accessible.
As a parent of one who lives in another country, I found Transitions Across Cultures to offer insightful analysis of the challenges that face those who live and move between different cultures.
– Jan, parent of an expat
This little book is power-punched with practical steps to help the traveler process and integrate new understandings of self and others that could mean the difference between a good experience and a bad one; between making long-lasting and resilient friendships or living with confusing and disappointing connections.
– Denise Nebeker, Leadership Coach and cofounder of LeaderCare Online
Why This Book?
What is Culture?
The Process of Transition
Preparing for Cross-Cultural Success
Coming Home and Welcoming Back
Every year, millions of people are engaged in cultural transition. Study abroad students and facilitators, international students, missionaries, Peace Corps Volunteers, global service-learners, international businesspeople and business travelers, refugees, asylum seekers, asylees, economic migrants, aid and development workers, military members, and trailing spouses and third-culture kids are all undergoing cross-cultural transitions every day.
Unfortunately, many people are underprepared for the disruptions caused by these transitions. For some the consequences are relatively minor—culture shock may be experienced as an inconvenience, or as L. Robert Kohls called it “the occupational hazard of overseas living.”2 For others, however, the consequences of culture shock can be profound and have lasting impacts on their lives. At the least, people who are unprepared for culture shock are likely to be unable to make the most of their experiences. Many people have a vague sense that they have not gotten all they could out of their cultural exchange, and some are left with a lasting inability to integratevaluable lessons into their life. However, for others the disorientation caused by culture shock can give rise to relational, career, and health challenges and breakdowns of either short or long-term duration. Major decisions people make during periods of culture shock can irrevocably impact their lives.
The results of poor preparation for cultural
transition can be stark. Moreover, this disorientation continues, often unexpectedly, if and when people return home. Lack of proper reintegration can result in lost productivity, unplanned vocational changes, and broken relationships. Cultural transitions are so potentially disruptive that some have observed that mental illness can result from cultural transitions that are not fully or properly processed.3
There is good news, however. When sojourners effectively prepare for and engage in cultural transitions, the results can be phenomenally good. Broadened perspectives, increased creative capacity, and expanded networks can result from well-managed cultural transitions. Preparation alone is not a cure-all; nearly everyone who enters deeply into another culture will experience culture shock. This does not diminish with age or prior experience.4 However, it is possible to better prepare yourself to navigate the transition, and even just understanding the transitional experience can be helpful to overcoming its worst effects.
WHY I WROTE THIS BOOK
I have been personally involved in cultural transitions since the 1980s, when I was growing up as the son of a naval officer. The first transition I remember was from Virginia to Texas. I began kindergarten there, and my memory is that Texas does a great job of instilling the love of the place in young children. But after two years in Texas public schools, we were headed off to Japan. I remember looking at books from the library with my mom and sister and being not only bewildered but terrified about this strange and faraway place.
Japan ended up being a wonderful place to live, but between the death of my grandfather shortly after we moved, my dad’s long deployments including Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, I was ready to return to the US in fourth grade.
Coming back to the US was good but very hard. We lived in southern California for about nine months and then headed to Kansas. In a situation to which many military brats and TCKs can relate, I was in three different schools my fourth-grade year, each in vastly different places.
It wasn’t until I was working on my master’s
degree that I really discovered the principles of culture shock, reentry, and what the third-culture kid is. I repeatedly called my sister with new insights: “I just found out why we were so messed up!”
After studying in Mexico for six months as part of a global service-learning program in college, I decided to go into higher education. Since 2004, I have been working with college students in various stages of cultural transition as well. I have worked with students preparing to study in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. I have traveled with and been responsible for students in Africa and Latin America, as well as in various regions in the US, including on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in the Deep South, and in the Pacific Northwest. I have also worked with international students studying in the US.
I also have worked with international non-profit organizations. Each year the position at my college most closely related to mine is filled by a couple on a one-year home assignment. This is my seventh year in this role, and I have had the opportunity to watch 14 of my colleagues up close in the two semesters of collaboration we have while they are in the midst of transitions. In my work teaching, I have had the opportunity to visit others abroad and often to observe and sometimes coach people in the midst of different stages of transition.
My wife Jennie and I have also had the privilege of debriefing groups of “first-term returners” who are living in the US for a year for the first time after four or five years abroad. Jennie and I have debriefed both students and career professionals who are in the midst of transitions.
One of the most unfortunate things I have
observed in all of this is how few people are well prepared for cross-cultural transitions. I have seen, in my own students, the difference in success between students who are well prepared and those who aren’t. I have also seen tremendous differences between those who recognize the realities of culture shock and reentry and those who are unaware of the effects of these phenomena. Without a doubt, those who understand why culture shock happens and how to deal with it are better adapted in the long run. Unprocessed culture shock seems to have a way of lingering—the buried discomforts don’t ever really go away. Sometimes, they strike back with a vengeance, like an unattended splinter left to fester. Other times, people are successful at building walls of separation between those disruptive experiences and their present selves, but at the cost of cutting off a very real (and often vibrant) part of their lived experience.
Despite all this, there are still too many schools, businesses, and organizations that don’t take seriously how disruptive culture shock can be. I have written and revised this book for three purposes. The first, and most immediate, is to enable the people actually traveling to understand what they can expect and how to cope with the disorientation caused by cross-cultural transitions. This includes sojourners who are already well beyond the opportunity to “prepare” but are trying to understand what has happened or what is currently happening in their transition. The second purpose is to enable those who are responsible for travelers to understand the seriousness of the cross-cultural transition so they can make appropriate decisions about supporting these individuals. The third purpose is to enable supporters of travelers, such as parents, friends, and loved ones, to understand what the traveler is experiencing so they can provide better support.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN THIS BOOK
This short book is intended to enable sojourners, the people responsible for them, and those who love them to better prepare for, process, and reintegrate following cultural transitions. This book is intentionally concise, designed to provide the basic principles for successfully navigating intercultural transitions. This book is not about how to effectively communicate across cultures. I have included a list of recommended resources at the end to help in that regard.
To accomplish the goal of doing transition better, each chapter of this book contains a mixture of intercultural theory and examples. Finally, readers can expect to find specific guidelines for engaging the transition, as well as practical tips on how to make the most of applying the theory.
Bolded words can be found in the glossary for clarification.
Although this book is definitely intended to assist you in your journey, each person’s experience is necessarily different. Some of the ideas here may apply to you (or your family, friends, employees, etc.), while others may not. These are suggested as hypotheses, to be held openly in your hand. If these tools fit, great! If they don’t, don’t try to force them to work—there may be something else going on.
As per usual in a book like this, any advice given should not be interpreted as medical, psychological, or other professional advice. Don’t use this book to replace your need for the help and support of competent professionals!
About the author.
Stephen W. Jones teaches, trains, and studies at the intersection of intercultural relations, cross-cultural ministry, and political science. He earned his Ph.D. in International Development at the University of Southern Mississippi and his M.A. in Intercultural Relations from the University of the Pacific, in conjunction with the Intercultural Communication Institute.
He was formerly Assistant Professor of International Studies at Crown College (2013-2020) and Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies at Grace University (2009-2012).
Stephen W. Jones, Ph.D. is father of three and husband of one. He lives with his family in Berlin, Germany where he serves as Fördermitarbeiter für internationale Kulturfragen und Verständigung with Envision Berlin.
Stephen W. Jones works to see transformation in the lives of individuals, communities, and the world. He yearns to see beauty rise out of pain, and believes that rooting lives in eschatological hope sets people free.
Stephen W. Jones