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Expats in India turn to therapy to deal with culture shock

More and more expatriates in India are turning to counselling services for help in dealing with their move and the dissonances that inevitably follow.

Dhyan Summers counsels new arrivals in India and helps them with their culture shock.Courtesy Amrit Dhillon
Dhyan Summers counsels new arrivals in India and helps them with their culture shock.Courtesy Amrit Dhillon

More and more expatriates in India are turning to counselling services for help in dealing with their move and the dissonances that inevitably follow.

Most Indians hoot at the notion of expatriates suffering in their “hardship” posting – the mansion in a swanky part of New Delhi, all those zeroes on the pay cheque, the limousine with a liveried chauffeur and a huge retinue of servants scurrying after them, when all they had back home, if they were lucky, was a fortnightly cleaner.

But speak to Dhyan Summers, a Californian who counsels expatriates in New Delhi with her Expat Counselling and Coaching Services and the problems seem real enough. The culture shock is overwhelming. The poverty, dirt, pollution and maimed beggars can stir powerful emotions.

Summers helps them to cope with these dissonances. “Everyone has to find their own comfort level with beggars,” she says, sitting in the bright orange study of her Nizamuddin East home in the Indian capital.

“You can give beggars food or money or nothing at all. There are no standard answers. I tell them that they can help if they wish by doing voluntary work but what they can’t change, they must accept.”

Summers’ practice – she has 30 years of experience as a trained counsellor and therapist – has flourished ever since she arrived in India six years go. As India’s economy grows at a rate that western economies can only dream of, a regular influx of foreigners arriving to work in India has expanded the expatriate community.

Foreigners accustomed to processes, systems and discipline find India impossibly anarchic. The Germans, say cultural counsellors, find India harder to deal with than, say, the Italians.

Apart from a handful of expats who hit the ground running, many come to Summers seething that the plumber came five hours late, that the maid left three ingredients out of a recipe, that the gardener hacked the tree instead of pruning it and that at the workplace, people miss deadlines. “The different work ethic is perhaps the biggest problem expats face. They are under tremendous pressure from their home country to meet expectations – but they can’t and the people back home don’t understand why,” she says.

Summers recalls a European chief executive who set up an auto parts manufacturing plant. His frustration quickly mounted when none of the targets set by the parent company were fulfilled and he began to sound as though he was making excuses all the time.

When he finally went to Summers for help, she told him: “Of course the targets are not being met – it’s a different work ethic. The expectations have to match the reality.”

Eventually, the executive had to ask colleagues from the head office to visit India to understand for themselves why he was not “performing” and to scale down the goals. To help him cope with the situation, Summers’ key message to him was not to take the situation “personally”.

“Expats have to remember there is nothing personal when workers fail you. It’s not a judgement on them. It’s simply a different way of working,” she says.

For example, in the Indian workplace, there are several things to keep in mind: it is important to ask about family; not to show aggression; not to criticise someone in a group because loss of face is anathema; and to learn to pick up culturally determined signals.

“Westerners have to learn that since most Indians tend to be deferential towards those in authority, they may not be forthright in the presence of a senior.

“So, during a discussion, if they remain silent, it is a mistake to regard this as acceptance,” explains Professor Bhagavan Krishnaswami, who used to head a cultural training course run at the top software company Wipro in the southern Indian city of Bangalore.

Some clients need help with more than the culture shock, which could be classified as relatively superficial.

Far more serious is the fact that the difficulties of being in a Third World country affect marriages by generating conflict, made worse because the couple are far away from their home, family and friends. So the husband is under pressure and working long hours with very little time for his wife, who has lost her identity and is suddenly a housewife, coping for the first time in her life with domestic staff, often seeking succour in an expat wives’ group, which, by dint of relentless India-bashing, plunges her into more negativity.

Summers now offers online counselling via Skype to expats in Russia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Greece and Venezuela, among others. Though the cultures are different, she can extrapolate from her knowledge of India to help them deal with their problems.

“Online counselling is the way of the future. Half my practice is online. The beauty of it is that clients can get help from an English-speaking therapist while sitting at home. And research shows that it is just as effective as face-to-face counselling,” she says.

www.expatcounselingand-coaching.com

artslife@thenational.ae


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