Nov 28, 2018

The reality of acculturation

“When in Rome …”

A person need only utter those three words, and most of us will immediately understand: when in an unfamiliar place, adapt to the local customs. While that philosophy is sometimes an opportunity to broaden one’s horizons and perhaps even provides a handy, albeit paper-thin excuse for indulgence (“I wouldn’t normally have three helpings of apple crumble but when in Rome…”), it also marks the expectation for newcomers to an environment to behave in a manner like that of the people around them—to acculturate. This might be easy for a tourist on vacation, but an immigrant striving to learn and incorporate the values, beliefs, language, customs and mannerisms of the new country will encounter many obstacles—one of which, is particularly large.

There’s No Place Like Home

The European Association for International Education (EAIE) explored 5 unique mental health stressors faced by international students—equally applicable to international workers. Number two on the list is acculturative stress: the psychological impact of adapting to a new culture. According to the EAIE, “The more dissimilar home and host cultures are, the more stressful the experience may become.” In other words, the greater the disparity between home and “Rome”, the greater the culture shock—and it can affect every aspect of life: “International students may miss their families, their beloved national cuisine, and the sights and sounds that they associate with home.”

Most of us would agree that “there’s no place like home”, and this reveals what may be the largest obstacle to acculturation: adapting to another culture’s customs while one’s heart is still anchored to home.

How can company’s help their employees surmount this obstacle? Like a gardener.

When Transplanting, Do as Gardeners Do

Kim Ann Zimmerman, a contributor to Live Science, sought to define culture in her aptly-titled article, “What is Culture?” She writes, “[Culture] can be seen as the growth of a group identity fostered by social patterns unique to the group.The key words here are “growth” and “foster”; acculturation is a process, a transition. It is not something that happens instantaneously but requires time. Even when examining the word “culture” itself, one can see these notions reflected in Zimmerman’s exploration of its etymology:

The word “culture” derives from a French term, which in turn derives from the Latin “colere,” which means to tend to the earth and grow, or cultivation and nurture. “It shares its etymology with a number of other words related to actively fostering growth,” said Cristina De Rossi, an anthropologist at Barnet and Southgate College in London.

The acculturation process a non-native employee undergoes is rooted literally and figuratively in the concept of gardening. Acculturation is a similar process to “transplanting”—the task of transferring a plant from one location to another. And, transplanting is not easy. Any gardener can tell you how delicate and intricate the process of transplanting is. Now, imagine the shock of being a person uprooted from their home culture to a whole new one. In fact, this article on actual transplantingin what is almost an admission of how painstaking the process ismakes this final, poignant comment: “All of this may seem extreme, but the shock of being uprooted is stressful to plants… extra precaution is vital to easing the transition for your transplants.”

When it comes to helping your immigrant employees acculturate, not only to the new country, but your company culture as well, this advice is just as crucial. Language and communication coaching is one way of helping non-native employees gain confidence in their skills as they navigate their new surroundings. Importantly, companies must acknowledge that acculturation requires time, patience, and empathy. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.


-Wayne Henry, Lingo Live, Data and Community Manager

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