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Two Types of Cultural Adjustment

From the series Going to China

This is the time of year when many people are going to China and facing new routines in a new place and a new culture, thus beginning their journey of cultural adjustment. In this series we will look at various aspects of and strategies for cultural adjustment. There will be two contributors to this series. I will write from a training and orientation perspective, while new contributor Beth Forshee will take a more personal and reflective perspective.

In his book, The Art of Crossing Cultures (1st edition), Craig Storti defines cultural adjustment as “the process of learning a new culture and its language and behaviors in an effort to understand and empathize with the people of the culture and to live among and interact successfully with them.”

I’ve always found this definition to be helpful because of its focus on cultural adjustment being a process, not an event. As long as you are residing in a different culture, you will be adjusting, whether that length of time is two weeks or twenty years. There will never be a point at which you say (in totality), “there, I’ve adjusted.” As long as you are there you will be encountering things that are different and that require you to adjust either the way you behave or the way you think.

He also points out that there are actually two different types of cultural adjustments that are taking place.

The first adjustment is to “behavior on the part of the locals that is annoying, confusing, and unsettling to us.”[1] (The Art of Crossing Cultures, Quercus. Kindle Edition, p. 27)

For those working in China, these behaviors are quite easy to identify. The crowds; the stares; the rituals; the indirect communication patterns. All of these can leave the expat in China (especially those from the West) feeling annoyed, confused, and unsettled.

Adjusting to life in China means doing what is necessary to adjust to those features of life that are different and often difficult to accept. This can range anywhere from embracing the new behaviors (I still hate splitting the bill when out to eat with friends here in the US) to no longer getting angry!

The second adjustment we have to make is in ourselves—adjusting our own behaviors that annoy, confuse, and unsettle the locals. These can be harder to identify because most of us can’t imagine anyone finding me to be annoying or confusing! Right?

I once asked a Chinese colleague about this one, and after first saying she couldn’t think of anything (she was trying to be polite), she finally fessed up that she found her American co-workers’ incessant asking of “why?” when something didn’t go according to plan to be quite annoying!

“But wait a minute,” I said. “Don’t you want to know the reason for the flight delay or cancellation?

“Of course I do,” she replied. “But I don’t expect the airline staff to know or care, so there is no point asking about it.”

I had to admit, she had a point.

So, as you think about your own cultural adjustment, whether you are just getting started or you’ve been at it for a while, here are some questions to consider:

  1. What are some of the behaviors on the part of the locals that you are having to adjust to? What strategies are you employing to do that?
  2. What are your own behaviors that you are having to adjust (or abandon) in order to successfully live and interact with the people around you? What strategies are you employing to do that?

Happy Adjusting!


  1. ^ In the 2nd edition Storti phrases it slightly differently: “confuses, frustrates, or otherwise puts expats off.”
Image credit: Barney Moss, via Flickr
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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