Close this search box.

Cross-border culture shock

Being a cross-border commuter is living Europe with open borders 26,000 people in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine alone live, work or study in two or even three neighbouring countries at the same time, This forms a very special, hybrid culture. While everyday life is often cross-border, the bureaucratic systems are not harmonised, that is they are not unified. EU-wide, the systems are nevertheless coordinated to some extent: There are reliable rules between the different systems for practically everything, but it takes some time to figure everything out.

There is little information on how the intercultural process is differently for cross-border commuters. The following pages raise your awareness for some typical aspects and differences.

Border crossing as a learning process​

Living in different cultures can be a great enrichment and most people will confirm how this experience can personally shape and enrich you. At the same time, one should be prepared for change and consciously engage in it. As with any personal change, there is a learning process ahead. But although you might be crossing the border for just a few kilometres, this learning process is international.

The step across the border – whether to live, study or work – is a learning experience. Even if it is really only a few steps: Despite all the proximity, you are in a different state, and that is precisely what you should consciously engage with.

As a cross-border commuter, you have to learn many things anew and may sometimes feel downright “stupid” and perhaps not even ask many questions. However, as a border crosser in another country you also have some advantages: you come from another country, you may not speak the language perfectly – all reasons that justify a supposedly stupid question. Good conditions, then, for rich learning experiences!

Abroad differently

Berlin - Amsterdam is different from Aachen - Maastricht

When moving from, for example, Berlin to Amsterdam, from The Hague to Brussels, from Antwerp to Munich, the new culture affects practically all areas of life. At the same time, when starting work and moving from Berlin to Amsterdam, there is a visible break, i.e. a long journey, possibly a flight with the procedures of checking in and out. This noticeable change also makes the change of country more understandable.

Home and abroad at the same time​

The cross-border situation is different: there is practically no break, you may still think you are at home, perhaps listening to the same radio in the same car, right up to the door of your new employer. On the one hand, you are left with more familiar things. On the other hand, the new and the familiar enter into a symbiosis that does not exist in the case of Berlin – Amsterdam.

Uneven exposure for couples

It is possible that the partner will remain in the old and familiar environment. The couple is thus much more unevenly exposed to the experience of a “culture shock”. On the other hand, there are of course also couples in which the second partner now also dares to take the step across the border and thus learns to better understand the particular context of the other. And of course there are also bi-national couples who can get to know each other’s home country in the work environment without leaving their old home country.

Home abroad

So, on the one hand, you are “exposed” to the new culture in fewer areas than you would be if you moved completely. On the other hand, you are surrounded by colleagues at work, most of whom have quite a different environment. This is also a great opportunity to get to know something new, but very close by: Leisure, shopping, business opportunities. In fact, this border region benefits greatly from the fact that many border crossers know their way around on both sides of the border. People that cross the border every day thus become a kind of information bridge for family and acquaintances. Intercultural multipliers, so to speak. And because there are already tens of thousands of them, the chances are high that the new working environment in the neighbouring country already knows a lot about their own background and frame of reference.

Practical example:

Unlike a complete move to a neighbouring country, one is not completely surrounded by the new culture. At the same time, the new culture also touches the familiar environment at home, sometimes completely unexpectedly:

Tobias Zimmer lives in Aachen and works in nearby Heerlen, Netherlands. Things are going well, at the end, working in the Netherlands is not so different from Germany. When Tobias wants to call in sick for the first time after a year, his company sends a company doctor to see him in his family house in Germany. Tobias does not understand and feels that this controlling doctor’s visit is a mistrust of the company and an outrageous invasion of his privacy. His neighbour in Aachen, who overheard the situation, can only confirm that such an encroachment is unnecessary and a sign of potential mistrust. After all, a company can’t do something like that to its employees, it’s clearly going too far.

Immersion or submersion in the neighbouring country? ​

Now imagine another situation:  If Tobias Zimmer had moved to the Netherlands for his new job, the Dutch company doctor would have visited him at home, the same as he did in Germany. Everybody living and working in the Netherlands knows, that such a visit is quite normal and no reason for concern. It is just what needs to be done when someone calls in sick. Due to the move and the complete new start in the unknown, Tobias Zimmer would have experienced several times that some things just work differently in the Netherlands. His expectation and mindset is that of minor surprises everyday. Perhaps he would have chatted with a Dutch neighbour the evening before and told him that he probably wanted to call in sick. The neighbour might have told him that the company doctor would need to come – Tobias Zimmer would have been forewarned “by the way” and initiated into a typical Dutch reality.

Upheavals and new life phases

Transitions or phases of life are associated with double bureaucracy in cross-border life. Additionally, many cross-border commuters often have less information and practice about the conditions in the new country of residence/work. This can lead to a feeling of being lost in a bureaucratic jungle that is not the own bureaucratic jungle.

Information & planning

Other phases of life must also be taken into account, for example when buying a house: If children already attend a day care centre/school during the move, this can be maintained. On the other hand, it is often not possible to send children to a day care centre/school in the neighbouring country without further ado.
The counselling provided by the GrenzInfoPunkte helps, especially in difficult situations, to maintain an overview and to organise the framework conditions in the best possible way. Even if the situation is not harmonised, the situation for cross-border commuters is coordinated in any case and regulations exist for everything.

Extra bureaucracy at a bad moment

There is more bureaucracy to deal with, and more unknown bureaucracy:

  • After moving to a neighbouring country, unemployment, for example, means having to deal with the new rules in the neighbouring country of residence. Due to the changed status of social insurance, it can happen that one can no longer easily make appointments with established doctors in the home country.
  • In the case of illness, it may well happen that you are placed in a special clinic in your country of residence, possibly with an unfamiliar language.

Both cases are actually similar to a normal move or a move abroad: If you would move, even within Germany, you will have different bureaucratic contact persons and you will most likely not be able to stick to your former doctor. However, you are aware of these changes right from the start, you will settle at the same time that your “euphoria” phase kicks in, when you are eager and motivated to explore your new environment. As a cross-border commuter, it might be difficult circumstances that actually make you aware of how much you still need to settle in the neighbouring country. 

Twice as shocking

As a cross-border worker, the “shock” of actually living in another country often comes coupled with other difficult life situations or upheavals. This can be perceived as a particular burden. It is important to realise that these phases will pass. The initially unfamiliar bureaucracy also becomes more familiar and less hostile. A further complication is that the immediate environment in the home country, the (new) neighbourhood, the circle of colleagues and also other cross-border commuters may not fully understand the situation and not every well-meant piece of advice applies to one’s own case. Some seemingly unimportant differences between yours and theirs situation can completely “tip” some situations. Depending on if you are married or not, employed full-time/part-time, an employee/official: These details decide, if you have to deal with the institutions in the one or the other country.

Culture shock?

The so-called culture shock corresponds to a typical change curve. Already in everyday life we have to learn to deal with new challenges. This usually happens unconsciously; small learning processes and adjustments are hardly perceived as an effort. In the case of major changes, such as moving to another place or starting starting a new work, these processes of change become more conscious.

Uphill, downhill

The process does not always feel like progress. It is not simply going uphill and constantly getting better. At least not subjectively. With any profound change there are typically phases of “euphoria” – “doubt and possibly rejection” as well as “adjustment, acclimatisation, acceptance”. So when you change jobs within a country, there can certainly be phases of doubt, regret and even shock about the new environment – every company culture and context differs from one another, even to a shocking extend.

Multiple processes at the same time

In the case of cross-border commuting “normal change”, differences between cities and countryside, and intercultural learning overlap and can exacerbate existing frustrations. It can be difficult to differentiate the sources behind uncomfort and how to go about solving it. All Belgians are hillbillies? Possibly you had the same irritation if you moved from your large hometown to a rural village also in your own country. You have problems with your new boss and that shapes a negative attitude towards the entire country? This can happen, but stay careful not to interpret too much.

Differentiating & generalisations

Especially in a border region, it is important to distinguish between the real causes of minor frustrations and adjustment difficulties. Only in this way can it become a learning experience, after which one can effortlessly find one’s way in very different contexts. Differences particular to your new country do not justify a negative attitude towards your workplace and its “normal” way of doing things.

This item is filed under:

Also worth reading:

I have a question