EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT! Conquering Culture Shock

Meander
6 min readMar 24, 2023

Victor Buldakov is CTO and Co-Founder of Vektor AI. In this article, he reflects on his experience of moving abroad, learning to adjust to a new working culture, and shares his main lessons learnt.

Do you have a story you like to tell new groups of people? The kind of thing you know gets all-round laughs? It’s got a premise, build-up, sub-plot, and a killer punchline…

Now try telling that story in your second language. Don’t forget to capture all the nuances, context, and retain the meaning.

You don’t know a second language?

You see where I’m going with this.

Culture shock manifests itself in all kinds of different ways. Granted, humour is less extreme than navigating a new healthcare system, tax calculations, or your local transport network.

However, a sense of humour is pretty important to how I communicate, and it was this difficulty “having fun” in a new country when culture shock really stood out to me.

Since my first move to Berlin as an engineer at Zalando, I’ve started a company in a second language, in yet another country.

This has given me a lot of opportunity to feel culture shock in its most varied and sometimes frustrating forms.

In a professional environment, where your native-speaker colleagues are high-flying and you feel perpetually two steps behind, it can really get you down.

Here’s my experience of culture shock and lessons I’ve learned to keep me motivated and optimistic about EVERYTHING BEING DIFFERENT.

Personal Challenges

Language Barriers

I’ve always been a little susceptible to imposter syndrome, but usually this is strictly professional. Do I really belong in this elite working culture? is something people ask themselves all the time.

But imposter syndrome also works on a social level. I was working at Zalando in Berlin, where the company’s first language is English and the first language of Berlin is, predictably, German.

I didn’t speak English well, and I spoke German even less well.

At work, people navigated their daily Zalando lives in impeccable English. Outside work, people spoke impeccable German.

So, my life was a routine of going to work, going out, coming home, and feeling all the while unable to engage with this new country.

And after a while, that starts to get you down.

I can fix this! I thought.

I thought learning German would at least help me in the time I spent away from the office.

This was a big mistake.

I had just uprooted my whole life to be in this new country. My job was demanding but didn’t require knowledge of German.

I just wish someone had told me to chill and focus on the things that were imminent: doing my job, finding a grocery store etc.

Corporate Culture Shock

And I haven’t even mentioned the corporate culture shock that comes when you switch companies.

My previous company was Yandex, a large corporation with their own tech stack. I didn’t need to keep up to date with the latest technologies because I just needed to be familiar with Yandex.

At Zalando, I had to absorb a whole new tech stack which, combined with the language element, was very painful.

Feedback

When I eventually moved from Berlin to London, I experienced yet another bout of culture shock: this time in the form of feedback.

In my experience of Eastern Europe, people say what’s on their mind — to a fault. Or, at least, to a fault in Western terms. Criticism doesn’t rile people there the same way it riles people here because we’re used to it.

Sugar coating can be tricky when you’re used to all-bran feedback.

You’re being a little aggressive. Do you mind being a little less… difficult?

In Russia, I could say “this is bad.” “This won’t work.” It’s not that you can’t say that in London, it’s just sort of expected that you’ll beat around the bush.

In London I was working for Facebook, where people tried to be as constructive as possible. I didn’t love this small part of your idea but here are ninety suggestions to improve it. I sound ungrateful and I don’t mean to be. It’s just an adjustment if you don’t expect to communicate in that way.

I remember presenting a project to a colleague one time. “I loved everything about it except this one small thing,” he said. He wanted me to completely reinvent parts of my proposal.

There’s nothing wrong with either approach here. I had just never confronted the difference until I started working in London. And you have to take some time to check yourself when you’re on the cusp of the sort of blunt feedback that leaves your coworkers in stunned silence.

Or, from the other point of view, you’re on the cusp of bush-beating your coworkers into a mid-morning snooze as you try painstakingly to arrive at your point.

I have had a lot of time and experiences to think about best practices when it comes to culture shock. The following are my list of recommendations.

Recommendations

  1. Accept That Things Are Different

Healthcare system: different.

Banking: different.

Ugh. This thing was way better before.

That’s not a healthy approach to take. You have to confront the changes great and small with a kind of curious optimism. Remind yourself why you relocated in the first place. And don’t always try to impose your home culture on your new culture. Let it come to you and enjoy it where you can. You’ll start to find more that you like real fast.

2. Acknowledge the Imposter Syndrome

Because it’s going nowhere. Like I wrote at the beginning, a sense of humour is really important to how I navigate the world, and how I form relationships with other people.

The language barrier means you experience a sort of erasure of personality. I’ve heard people say learning a language is like learning a new personality. I think a lot of that has to do with one’s inability to articulate sarcasm effectively when you’re still shaky on the conditional tense.

You might not feel 100% your “real” self when making new friends because of this language barrier. But seriously: don’t give up with the jokes. Your friends are patient. You, with patience, get better.

And oh my God: when the jokes start to land you feel like a freaking wizard.

3. Tell People That You’re Having a Hard Time!

Telling your friends you’re struggling is a given; here I’m talking about telling your boss, your co-workers, the barista on the third floor of your office.

People aren’t going to blame you for having a hard time adapting. They might begrudge your lack of communication, though.

A good manager will know that we all come from different contexts. They’ll know you need time. But they’ll also expect you to at least make an effort in relaying a hard time so they can help you.

4. Find a Support Network

This could be people who have also relocated from your home country, but it can be people who are relocating from any country. You’re in the same position in many respects. You can bond over London’s gorgeous winter weather or how it somehow takes forty minutes to take the tube anywhere.

Worst case scenario: everyone is worse off than you. You can still share your story and feel supported.

Best case scenario: everyone is way more adapted than you. You can learn from EVERYONE.

Final Thoughts

Overcoming culture shock happens at a different rate for everyone. Even if you followed everything I suggest here, time is a fickle thing that affects us all differently.

But time really is the key component. Which is important to remember once the starry-eyed oh my God I’m in a new country! excitement fades into the anxiety-inducing oh my God I’m in a new country!

I’ve burned out. Changed jobs. It took me about a year of living abroad to feel adjusted. At some point conversations don’t feel as difficult, meetings happen and you feel like you contributed well. A new routine materialises around your new life and you have a sense of grip.

For me, I had an easier time in London than Berlin. I knew some English already, so that might have been a factor. But I also started a business.

Let me tell you: nothing feels like a greater dunking of your face in the cold waters of adapting to a new country than founding a business that operates in a language that is not native to you.

You might not want to start a business. To be fair, that is probably the least efficient way to adapt to a new country.

Just give it time.

Engage with your new home.

And before you know it, you’re sipping a pint in your favourite local wondering if the Victoria line is running today or not.

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