How to overcome fear when transitioning into a new culture?
Transitioning to a new culture can be exciting, mind-opening, and can provide endless possibilities. But it can also be daunting, uncomfortable and frightening.
Transitioning into a new culture can mean moving to a new country, city, company, school, community, department, or even team. Each of these sub-cultures has its new environments, people, activities, as well as 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, to adapt, and make the best out of any new situation. To overcome fear in a new culture, we need to investigate and determine if our fear is legitimate, take small and low-risk steps and slowly build your confidence.
Humans have evolved to identify new things, people, or places as a “threat” to our survival. According to Keith Rollag, management professor and author of What to do when you’re new 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 a sensation in the environment. Our brain picks up these cues and it interprets them as either life-threatening or not. If it is threatening, the stress hormones, nervous system, and muscles are activated to prepare ourselves for action. Our complex brains of billions of neurons communicate in lightening speed and that our fear responses are almost always automatic and unconscious.
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 continued state will influence your level of productivity and performance in the workplace and in living a fulfilling life.
A new culture provides us with opportunities 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 be in 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, we will miss the many wonderful 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.
Investigate – Is your fear real or imagined?
We are shaped by learnings, emotions, and reactions from our past experiences and use it 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 Starbucks 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 threatened 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 itself. 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 that is based on the past experiences may not be true 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 to show interest and passion about the topic, and not about 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 opportunities for growth. When we 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 you are in a new country, city, community, company, or even department, being in a new environment can be daunting. Here are a few suggestions on how you can overcome 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.
Big changes can be a shock to the system, so much so that it 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.
It could be trying a new restaurant or a new cuisine. Taking a different route to work. Sitting on a different seat in the office pantry. In social situations, it could mean meeting up for coffee rather than for happy hour with your new colleague, date or an acquaintance. When you get into the habit of trying new and low-risk activities often, it will slowly stretch your comfort zone and help to gain the confidence to trying 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 to yourself 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.
But if we let it run our lives, it will be detrimental to our well-being, our performance at work, isolates ourselves from others, 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, with every successful confrontation, take the time to celebrate, for you have become more confident, resilient, and more open to new worlds.
Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling is a seasoned Learning and Development Professional with a passion for supporting leaders and teams in leveraging diversity, increasing intercultural awareness, and cultivating inclusive workplaces. Her lifelong work spans across 21 countries and across various industries such as manufacturing, technology, travel and non-profit. Having lived and worked in 6 countries, she believes that openness, compassion and inclusion creates thriving and engaging workplaces.