How to stay Adaptable: the expat’s guide to mental flexibility

Adaptability is the skill that allows us to deal with new and different external conditions, ways of thinking, behavioral modes and so on and so forth.

Unfortunately, adaptability doesn’t come natural to most adults.

Culture is essentially the answer of human beings to adapting more quickly to different environmental conditions.

Whereas other species are forced to go through the slow process of genetic evolution in order to adapt more successfully to environmental conditions, culture has evolved as a means to transfer wisdom and knowledge from one generation to another and thus to move the human race forward constantly.

Culture is the collective wisdom of all the generations that have become before us in regards to how we best survive the environmental conditions we find ourselves in.

The problem is just that this collective wisdom is becoming ingrained into us through the process of socialization from the time that we are children, which makes it incredibly hard to break free from its constraints.

We are all stuck in the framework dictated by our cultural conditioning

When we move to another country, essentially we are confronted with a completely different cultural framework on how the world works and how to best survive in it.

These different cultural frameworks have developed out of the different environmental conditions that groups of human beings have found themselves in throughout their history.

With different environmental conditions, different survival strategies were necessary.

Consequently, the beliefs, assumptions values and behaviors of people from different cultural backgrounds are also completely different from each other.

Since they were originally survival strategies requiring quick reaction, cultural behaviors become automated to quite a strong degree.

As a result, people who have been living in their own culture of origin for their whole life, spend a significant amount of their time without reflecting on why they behave the way they do on a day-to-day basis.

Most of the time, it is only when we are confronted with behaviors that are strange to us that we actually start reflecting on our own behavioral patterns, beliefs and assumptions about the world.

Becoming aware of how we respond to a new belief system is the key to adaptability

When we talk about cultural behavior, we essentially talk about shared behavioral patterns and ways of thinking among a group of people.

Being exposed to a new cultural environment means being exposed to a new system of behaviors and beliefs.

By nature, we have strong emotional responses to a new cultural system as it puts to question the very nature of who we are and what we believe in.

Most of the time, our emotional responses to a new culture will be negative.

This is normal, as we are defending the identity which we have developed over time. Our brain essentially says to us: “this is new. New is dangerous. Stick with the behavioral patterns you know. They have kept your ancestors and yourself alive until now”.

Emotional reactions like these will accompany us all our lives, no matter how experienced we are in adapting to new cultural environments.

The key to adaptability is to learn not only how to monitor these emotional reactions, but also how to respond to them.

Learn how to become aware of your emotional reactions

Let’s say that you are from a very collective culture where it is the absolute norm to sleep in the same bed with your child until quite an advanced age in order to foster the collective identity of the family.

When you are moving to a western culture, you notice that most of the parents let their children sleep in separate rooms.

In your culture, this would actually count as child abuse! What kind of parents would ever leave their children alone at night and expose them to all kinds of dangers?

You are shocked. How can the people in your host culture be so cruel?

How you respond to situations like these determines whether or not you will be successful at adapting to a new cultural environment.

To be able to move to the right direction, you first need to acknowledge the fact that you are in a situation of shock and that you have very bad feelings about the behavior of the local people.

Become consciously aware that, by necessity, living in a new cultural environment will put you in situations where you will have negative emotions like these.

Try to suspend judgment until you analysed the behavior and fully understood it

Perhaps you will always think of the parents in your host culture as cruel and uncaring about their children. And that is totally fine.

But the point I am trying to make here is that you should suspend judgments like these until you have reached the point where you can fully say that you completely understand the reasons behind the locals’ behavior, including the values, assumptions and beliefs that are underlying them.

Ask yourself questions like these:

  • Why are these people behaving the way they do?
  • What could be some positive reasons behind their behavior?
  • What do they believe in that leads them to act in this particular way?
  • How does this behavior fit with other things I have learned about their culture?

Of course, it is unlikely that you will come up with all the right answers by yourself. But just going through that thought exercise can help you by actually pushing you to put yourself into the perspective of the locals.

In addition to asking yourself these questions, you should also always inform your understanding by getting feedback from other people about the assumptions you make.

  • Find a cultural mentor — somebody who understands the local culture better than you and who you can use to check your assumptions on
  • Ask the people themselves why they are behaving the way they do, and they will tell you a great deal about their motivations
  • Talk to other foreigners, especially those who have been living in the country longer than you
  • Do research by reading books on this particular culture or find information on the internet

Getting feedback is incredibly important as it will give you a way to see whether the assumptions you have made about your host culture are correct.

Once you have made serious efforts to understand the local culture and you feel that your understanding is now complete enough to allow for a judgment, you have earned yourself the right to do so.

That’s right. You have now earned yourself the right to judge your host culture.

It always frustrates me to see people who are talking negatively about the behavior of the people in the country they moved to without ever having made any serious attempts to understand the values, beliefs and assumptions that are the deep roots of these behaviors.

What are the positive aspects that you see in this behavior?

Adapting to another culture doesn’t mean that you should blindly follow everything the locals do, while forgetting about your own cultural background.

If you simply copy the behavior of the people around you in order to achieve the outcomes you want, you will never become happy.

Rather, you should ask yourself what the positive aspects of this new behavior are. Why the people behave the way they do and what advantages this has.

For instance, in the case of the western parents who let their children sleep in a separate room, you will quickly find out that their motivation in doing so is to help the children from an early age on to become independent, to take care of themselves and take responsibility for their own lives.

Perhaps you will disagree with the idea to let your child sleep in another room only to develop autonomy. But perhaps you also find that you start to like the idea of helping your child develop a higher degree of autonomy as opposed to focusing exclusively on the collective identity of the family.

Find creative solutions to combine elements from both cultures

Let’s just stick with this example and say that you have recognized that both beliefs are important — the idea that children should learn from an early age to become independent, as well as the idea that your children should learn to become a part of the family unit that strives towards harmony and collective support.

While you disagree with the idea to let your child sleep in another room, you slowly start developing other parenting techniques that allow your child to become more independent.

For instance, instead of always being very protective of your child in any circumstances, you give her more freedom to explore her surroundings.

Or, instead of making decisions for your child which extracurricular activities to follow, you let her make her own decisions about how she wants to spend her leisure time.

In other words, you are combining elements from both cultural backgrounds in ways that are not fully going in line with either culture.

Rather, you are slowly becoming something of a hybrid living between both worlds, taking the most positive behavior from either side when it suits the circumstances best.

So, what are the next steps?

If you want to become more adaptable to different cultural environments, you need to break free from the idea that one culture is better than the other in any way.

Both cultures have their very own reason for existence, which is why the most reasonable idea is to integrate elements from both cultures into your own belief system.

To do that, ask yourself questions like these:

  • Which elements from both cultures are the most positive to me? In which ways are they similar, and in which ways are they different?
  • To what degree have I been able so far to suspend judgment about cultural behaviors? What steps can I take to become less driven by my immediate emotional responses?
  • What behaviors from the new cultural environment do I find positive, and that I would really like to integrate into my own behavioral repertoire?