A traveling man sits on a bridge with his head down, suffering from the cultural stress of new situations

In spring in Japan, cherry blossoms bloom and signify that change is around the corner. The traditional Japanese fiscal year starts in April, and herds of businesspeople are assigned to new jobs or to overseas locations altogether. Of course, this trend isn’t limited to Japan. People around the world are moving to new work locations and cultures, bringing both excitement and nervousness about the changes ahead.

Excitement and nervousness can both build up as cultural stress in new situations. What’s more, these two extreme emotions can come and go abruptly, changing places in the most unexpected ways. In some cases, the swing of emotions lasts way beyond the initial stage of transition (with or without a honeymoon period) and can turn into a love-hate drama that persists over years.

I often hear requests (and pleas for advice) from international students who struggle with their love and hate for Japanese culture. Some of them even consider quitting their job in Japan just to get away from the agony. They often blame Japanese culture for being so “different” and “unglobal”—which raises the question, “What is a global culture anyway?”

When I lived abroad in London and New York, this used to happen to me as well. Looking back, it’s almost funny to realize how dramatic we can get over cultural stress. We tend to react to the cultural stress of new situations more emotionally than we react to other things. A French philosopher, Émile Chartier (also known by the pseudonym “Alain”) said, “Pessimism comes from our passions; optimism from the will. Every man who lets himself go is sad.”

Pessimism comes from our passions; optimism from the will. Every man who lets himself go is sad.

Émile Chartier (Alain)

Alain’s wisdom tells us that negative perceptions and reactions are products of our emotions. This rings true for the drama of dealing with the cultural stress of new situations. He also encourages us to use our willpower to create positive experiences. These days, I tend to not get as angry or frustrated with cultural shock. Rather, I make a clear decision to enjoy and study new experiences. That is willpower, and I find this mindset quite effective in allowing me to enjoy my life anywhere I go.

When faced with the cultural stress of new situations, in Japan or elsewhere, here are the three key choices and decisions we can make to rein in our emotions, draw out our analytical mind, and harness our willpower.

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1. Replace “bad” with “interesting.”

All cultures are equal, but they are not the same. In the face of stress, we often forget this simple fact. We start ranking cultures, and often say, “This never happens in my country” or “This is really bad” or even “My culture is better!”

In some cases, these statements may hold some truth, but a big part of these reactions is usually caused by our emotions. In order for our willpower to kick in, we should change the phrases we use in our reactions.

I find the word “interesting” truly magical. “Wow, this is very different. Where is the difference coming from? Very interesting!” When I say this in my mind, everything suddenly turns into a great intellectual pursuit. I start asking more questions instead of remaining frustrated with secret judgments.

So try saying “interesting!” rather than “bad!” the next time you feel the cultural stress of new situations!

2. Let your emotions help you grow.

We can only recognize our real selves when in contrast to things that are different from us—our nature, our values, and our style. Strong negative emotions under cultural stress indicate great opportunities for self-reflection. Despite the stress, experiencing differences opens us up to opportunities for inspiration. Delightful, positive emotions help us grow and change.

We hate to be told to change, but love to be inspired to change.

Emotions are the greatest teacher we have in life—if we use them wisely!

3. Acknowledge your choice of staying or going.

No matter whether it is for business or personal reasons, whether it’s short term or for life, you made a choice to live in a foreign country. The cultural stress of new situations starts and ends with this choice. We cannot deny the fact that some cultures may simply not be our cup of tea. It is okay not to love all cultures. You’re not a bad person for struggling with the fit. And you can make a decision to end your stay.

This choice might be easier for some people than others. You may feel you have no choice but to stay because of your job or your partner. But this perception is not true—you always have a choice. The attitude that you are trapped and powerless will not help your stress levels. Letting yourself fall into a state of mind that you are without clear choices will inevitably lead to negative emotions. It also creates room for blame: It’s not you, it’s this “bad” culture!

If the problem is that you just cannot make the choice to leave, you can at least make a decision to avoid placing unfair blame. That way, you can exercise more willpower and avoid feeling sad. Acknowledging that you have made your choice will help you let go of regret and make you happier.

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Embracing the Cultural Stress of New Situations

Moving to a new culture inevitably comes with stress, but don’t let that stress overwhelm you. These three simple choices can help you positively respond to the cultural stress of new situations. Remember, too, that cultural adjustment is a process. Sensitivity to different cultures develops over time. You don’t have to love everything about a new culture right away—or even love the same parts of a culture forever.

Allow your analytical mind a little exercise, and harness your willpower to make the best of the stress.

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