Cultural Clashes and How to Handle Them

As an expat, you need to effectively interact with the local people and with team members who come from around the world. It’s a challenge, because it means crossing cultures. We’re all different and hold tightly to our different beliefs about what’s right, good and normal. So whenever there’s cross cultural interaction there’s a big chance for confusion, misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Not all cross cultural encounters go wrong, but when they do, they can have us stewing in negative thought patterns!

Here’s how a collision of cultures typically occurs:

EXPECT: We expect other people to be like us and to behave like us. But they aren’t and they don’t. We’ve been taught that what we do is right and it’s the way people should behave. 

CLASH: A cultural clash happens when they don’t behave like us and we’re put off. 

REACT: Cultural clashes lead to a reaction. One, if not both, people are confused, offended, or frustrated by the behavior of the other.

WITHDRAW: This reaction has us withdraw. We feel lousy toward the local people and so it’s easiest to avoid them.

And how well does that work when you live in their country?

You’d think we’d know better than to expect others to think and behave like us. This is the clincher: what we know to be true doesn’t always drive our actions. What our conscious mind tells us (that the locals aren’t like us) is no match for what a lifetime of cultural conditioning has taught us. This is what Craig Storti has to say in “The Art of Crossing Cultures”:

“We can’t be too hard on expats. The fact that they expect the locals to behave like them is not something they dream up just in time to go overseas. Nor is it something they decide to do or are even consciously aware of doing. It’s merely something they’ve done all their lives – in order to survive. It just happens to be something that doesn’t serve them very well overseas.” 

words Crossing Cultures on a blue background

What do we do about these cultural clashes? You can intentionally choose to:

Not take it personally. It feels like it’s about you, but it’s not. Believe me on this one! Tell yourself over and over ‘it’s not about me’.

Change your expectations. The problem isn’t what the local people do, but that you’re expecting them to do something different. This is huge! Some of you won’t like it…but bottom line, it’s your expectation, not their behavior that is the sticking point! This is actually good news because it means you have control over the outcome. If you can stop assuming they’re like you, you won’t take it personally and react so negatively when they act themselves.

Be aware of your emotions. It’s easy to experience emotions, but it’s rare to courageously notice and observe them. When shock, surprise, frustration or anger are felt, you’ve experienced a cultural clash. It isn’t usually convenient to come fully present with the emotion (notice/observe it) at that moment. Once you’ve removed yourself from the situation, go back to the feeling (it’s likely still very real) and ask yourself:

  • Why am I feeling this way?
  • How did I expect the local to behave?
  • How did they behave differently?

Learn all you can about the local culture. This enables you to not only better understand, but accept them and change your expectations of how things “should” be. You can learn more about their culture by

  • studying it through books and intercultural training
  • observing as you live close to them
  • talking to the local people and asking questions about why and how they do things

Take in the big picture. Not all your cross cultural encounters are cultural clashes. Many are great. Often they graciously smile at your cultural faux pas! Others are neutral. Pay attention to the many times there are successful intercultural encounters. Celebrate them. 

Focus on sameness. As human beings, we have a lot in common. Focus on what’s the same, not only what’s different. We all desire to be known, celebrated and heard. We all long for security and signihands shaking ficance. Ask yourself, “How are we the same?”, “What can I see attracting me to this person?” Celebrate sameness. Living in Kuwait, I found it difficult to connect with the Kuwaiti women, covered in their burka’s, with only eyes and feet showing. I started to notice what they were wearing on their feet and learnt a lot about the women I crossed paths wtih – playful, glamourous, style conscious, a flair for variety. I’d also look them in the eye and smile and it was amazing how many eyes smiled back and me. I saw them as mothers, sisters, daughters and friends. What a difference this made in my connection with them, even though we never said a word to each other. It made a difference internally for me as well.

A complication does happen when the behaviors of the locals violate values that are fundamental to your identity and self esteem, or moral principles. The locals may have a very logical explanation of why they view women or children or bribery (or whatever) as they do. The bottom line is whether you as an expat can accept that logic. These types of behavior, no matter how much you try and understand the culture, will upset you and you will never approve of them.

Some of these unacceptable behaviors may be what the locals will expect of you. What then? It’s a huge struggle because the more you conform to the local norms, the more successful and effective you will be on assignment. Yet you don’t want to compromise your values and morals. Here’s the solution: Explain that even though you know what’s expected of you and what’s normally done in this situation, for ‘personal reasons’ you cannot do it. This shows cultural sensitivity and gives you a way out. It also holds you responsible (personal reasons) so that the locals involved don’t feel blamed. Remember not to reject behaviors before you’ve understood them. Storti puts it this way:

always try to understand before you judge, but once you have understood,
you must judge. Otherwise you risk compromising your own identity.”

Being culturally aware and sensitive has many advantages. It increases your chances of succeeding – both personally and professionally. It allows you to feel safe and secure. As you begin to understand the local culture, you can relax and give more of yourself to others. You will be able to see the world from a new perspective. Not that you abandon your own point of view, but you’re now able to take on a different perspective too. You begin to understand that behavior that makes no sense to you might make perfect sense to someone else! Lastly, you’ll learn so much more about your own culture as well as yourself. Living in 5 different cultures taught me a lot about myself and how I tick. My greatest learning came when I was open to the experiences I had and as a result, I was enriched. That’s my hope for you!

I can be contacted at If you know someone who could use this article, please forward it to them.

Live with courage and love,

Signature of Becky Matchullis - Expat Family Resilience Coach

© by Becky Matchullis, NLT


Speak Your Mind