Transitioning to a new culture can be exciting, mind-opening, and can provide endless possibilities. But it can be daunting, uncomfortable and frightening.
Transitioning into a new culture can mean moving to a new country, city, company, school, community, department, or team. Each of these sub-cultures has its unique environments, people, activities, and ways of interacting or working. It may expose us to different sets of social norms, values, beliefs, and customs.
It is normal to feel awkward, scared, and anxious in a new culture. But we cannot continue to live in this state for long, as it will be detrimental to our overall health and well-being. There are ways to overcome these feelings of fear, adapt, and make the best out of any new situation. To overcome fear in a new culture, you need to investigate and determine if your fears are legitimate, take small and low-risk steps and slowly build confidence.
Humans have evolved to identify new things, people, or places as a “threat” to survival. According to Keith Rollag, management professor and author of What to do when you’re new1 says…
"From an evolutionary standpoint, trying new things, for much of human history, could have been dangerous,” He continues with “deep in our brains there’s a primal fear of looking bad, a fear of not performing as well as others.” and “the fact that you’re meeting new people, new groups, new experiences, and that triggers a lot of that anxiety we have about being the newcomer.”
To overcome fear, we must first understand how it works.
What happens when we live in fear?
Fear is the signal from our body to prepare for action, to protect ourselves and survive. When we face what seems to be a life-threatening situation, our brains gear up into either fight, flight, or freeze mode.
Fear starts when our senses detect a shape, sound, smell, taste, or sensation in the environment. Our brain picks up these cues and interprets them as either life-threatening or not. The stress hormones, nervous system, and muscles are activated to prepare ourselves for action if a trigger is threatening. Our complex brains of billions of neurons communicate at lightning speed, and that our fear responses are almost always automatic and unconscious2.
In a new culture, we need to find ways to overcome our fears. The constant heightened state of fast breathing, heart racing, and muscle tensing will be detrimental to your overall health and well-being in the long term. This state will influence your level of productivity and performance in the workplace and in living a fulfilling life.
A new culture allows us to learn about others and gain social skills, which we wouldn’t have if we remained in our comfort zone. However, if fear controls us, our interaction with others will fight, flight, or freeze. Fear pushes others away and keeps us safe in self-isolation or in our comfort zone. It’s as if an invisible protective wall is built to protect ourselves from others in the new culture. If steps are not taken, you will miss the many fantastic opportunities to learn, grow, and become a more resilient and adaptable person.
I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear. Rosa Parks
Is your fear real or imagined?
We are shaped by learnings, emotions, and reactions from our past experiences and use them to guide us in our present day. But what we learn from the past doesn’t necessarily mean that it remains true in the present or future.
For example, there was a famous incident in Starbucks3 where a manager called the police to arrest two customers because they hadn’t ordered any food or beverage. They were only in the cafe for 10 minutes and waiting for a business meeting to start when the manager made the call.
The arrest caused a public outcry. Why? Because the customers are African American. A month later, Starbucks promptly responded by closing all stores in America to provide racial-bias training to all their employees. Why had the manager called the police? Did the customers threaten the safety of the manager? Was it imagined? Was it a legitimate fear?
The challenge is that our biological reaction to any perceived threats is quite often unconscious and automatic. This need to survive is heightened when a new person, environment, event, or anything presents. Because we don’t have historical and contextual information about the new culture, we react and behave based on what was learned from our past. This can be dangerous because it may mean that our reactions based on past experiences may not be accurate in the current reality.
For example, when someone speaks in a raised voice and a faster cadence, from your personal experience, it may mean that the person is angry and might become aggressive. In response to this, you become defensive and ready to fight back or run. From the speaker’s point of view, it is their way of showing interest and passion about the topic, not attacking the person they are speaking to.
Our fear has helped mankind to survive millions of years. But when misdirected, it creates stress for ourselves and others. We miss out on growth opportunities. When you encounter a new person, thing, event, or environment, take a moment and ask yourself, is this fear real or imagined?
Steps to overcome fear successfully in a new culture
Whether in a new country, city, community, company, or even department, being in a new environment can be daunting. Here are a few suggestions on overcoming the sense of fear and anxiety in a new culture.
Start with your personal interest or with the familiar.
One great place to start is to consider your personal interest. Do you enjoy running? Hiking? Knitting? Or reading?
Most places will have local groups or communities that are of similar interests. Seek out others who share a common ground and connect with others on a common topic. From there, you can turn a conversation of mutual interest with an acquaintance to become a friend who can provide advice and guidance in the new culture.
A leader I once knew from the boomer generation had a team of young millennials. Despite the generation gap, the leader spent time and effort to connect with their millennial employees by discussing and sharing news about their mutual interest, K-Pop bands. While misunderstandings do arise, the mutual interest of K-Pop bands helped to maintain a strong team spirit.
Pick small and low-risk activities.
Significant changes can shock the system, so much so that they may create a tremendous level of fear and anxiety. This may prevent you from engaging even in the smallest of activities. When in a new culture, pick activities that have minor consequences on yourself, your career or your relationships.
Taking a different route to work. It could be trying a new restaurant or a new cuisine. Sitting on a different seat in the office pantry. It could mean meeting up for coffee rather than for happy hour with your new colleague, date or acquaintance. When you get into the habit of trying new and low-risk activities, it will slowly stretch your comfort zone and help you gain the confidence to try higher-risk activities eventually.
Reframe the situation
Fear comes from our learned way of thinking and perceiving a situation. For example, skydiving or a bungee jump can be life-threatening. But for many, these activities are seen as exciting, thrilling, and some have become addicted to these activities. It’s not because they do not feel the same sensations. It is because the way they view these activities is different.
When you find yourself in a new situation, reframe by saying that this activity is “exciting, challenging, courageous”. When we practice reframing often, confidence will grow. When you look back at all the news things you’ve tried, you’d be amazed at your accomplishments.
It is normal to feel fear.
Yet if we let fear run our lives, it will be detrimental to our well-being, our performance at work, isolates and prevents us from living a fulfilling life. When fear does arise, examine it and determine if it’s a real or imagined fear. Take small steps to confront it and prove that you no longer let fear control your life. Finally, take the time to celebrate every successful confrontation, for you have become more confident, resilient, and more open to new worlds.
- Rollag, K. (2016). What to do when you’re new: How to be comfortable, confident, and successful in new situations (First Edition). AMACOM--American Management Association.
- Javanbakht, A., & Saab, L. (2017, October 27). What Happens in the Brain When We Feel Fear. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-happens-brain-feel-fear-180966992/
- Starbucks. (2018, April 17). Starbucks to Close All U.S. Stores for Racial-Bias Education. Starbucks Stories. https://stories.starbucks.com/press/2018/starbucks-to-close-stores-nationwide-for-racial-bias-education-may-29/