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Mar 11, 2013

Understanding Emotions: the influence of Anger when Overseas

Anger is an emotion that often comes out of a sense of unfairness. That what happened is not what we wanted to happen, not what should have happened and most certainly not what we deserve to have happen. From a Darwinian approach, the survival reasons for anger would be to summon enough energy to take effective action to defend against a potential danger. It isn’t such a logical leap then to understand that for many people living abroad, anger can be a pretty commonly felt emotion. When we’re in an unfamiliar environment, it can be that much easier for us to perceive danger where it isn’t. What many of us might think of as “small” annoyances - the taxi driver took the wrong road, the flight was delayed, the meeting topic changed at the last minute, or the relocation company overcharged for some suitcases, can feel more like minor disasters.

As referenced in my previous blogpost about culture shock, whether or not someone wanted to go overseas can be an important compounding factor when they then encounter something here that didn’t go as hoped. Naturally one who felt he or she didn’t have a choice may be more likely to get angry faster. But it isn’t as though this is the only factor contributing to outbursts in anger or that it’s absence can protect someone from feeling very angry.

Certainly another contributing factor can be that when the job role one came to China to do turns out to be very different from the job role one actually ends up doing. For example, an executive who had told he would be spending 80% of his time in the Shanghai office but actually finds himself traveling to various other cities in China 80% of the time could find that he becomes angry much easier. His sense of control over his life has been reduced and with it his ability to cope. This situation isn’t uncommon, as there may have been poor communication between offices about the needs of projects or clients, or those needs may have changed prior to arrival.

And finally, a third contributor to a more easily triggered temper is the presence of difficulties or complications back home. Again, individuals may feel frustrated that they have little power to influence these things or be present for them. For example, if one’s parents or extended family become ill or if the renters in the home left behind are found to be destroying it.

For counselors working with those who are preparing for an expat assignment or may currently be in one, it can be useful to have an understanding of how this anger can take people by surprise. If people can know to expect frustration in certain situations, they can also be prepared for how to cope with it constructively, rather than repeatedly blowing their cool. It’s important to recognize as well that much anger may be displaced, in the sense that instead of expressing anger about what has happened at work or with the apartment landlord, the individual may find him or herself flying off the handle at a waitress or shopkeeper.

The reality is, there’s a lot that can go wrong when we are living outside of the country most familiar to us. There can be many times when we’ll be misunderstood or where it was assumed we would already know certain things. A simple example might be not being sure which documents to take with you to the police station the first time you register your address overseas. Frankly, bureaucratic tasks like this take most people more than one try to get it right. Or knowing how to explain our address in Chinese over the phone to a delivery person. Or even something like what to do when your phone won’t work any more because it’s run out of calling credit.

Many of these things are learned through the difficult lessons of getting them wrong a time or two. No matter where we live, it’s nearly impossible to be prepared for every eventuality - so it can help reduce our anger if we decrease the importance of having things go “right” the first time we try. Learning this lesson is probably just as important to us as counselors as it will be to our clients. Even after three and a half years here, I know I still have to remind myself of it from time to time.





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