Culture Shock and Psychological Factors Influencing The Integration Of New Immigrants in Estonia

Interviews during the piloting of adaptation program (Rannut, 2009) revealed that new immigrants go through many phases of adaptation from which the most difficult is isolation. At first, the new culture is exciting. Perhaps it is first time when they can feel snow. They feel eager to immerse themselves in the new culture and are intrigued by the differences they encounter. This is referred to as the honeymoon or euphoria phase. However, after a couple of weeks when the newness has worn off  the excitement turns into anxiety, fear and distress. They feel bored, frustrated and isolated.

Culture shock is a typical reaction to difference, however most immigrants don’t know that and they are not able to analyse their feelings. The moment immigrants are uprooted from their own culture and enter into the new society they leave comfort zone and they experience it as a culture shock. According to Furnham and Bourhis (1982) symptoms of culture shock may be irritability, feeling very angry over minor inconveniences, withdrawal from people who are different from them, extreme homesickness, boredom, headaches, depression, loss of ability to work or study effectively etc. Interviews during the adaptation courses showed that the main feelings during culture shock phase were boredom, anger over minor inconveniences, irritability, loss of ability to study effectively and depression. Even family migrants in Estonia claimed that they were bored as they had no one to talk, except their wives, as they did not speak local languages.

Research has revealed that in comparison to other migrant groups, Russian immigrants have been found to exhibit higher levels of depression and fail to adopt the resilience patterns typical of other migrants (Aroian and Norris 2000, 2002). A comparative study on Russian- and Ethiopian-born Jews who had migrated to Israel found that Russian immigrants were more distressed than their Ethiopian counterparts, although the smaller cultural distance between Israel and Russia and higher level of education of Russian Jews had predicted the opposite outcome (Ponizovski et al. 1998). However, in Estonia, it is vice versa. Interviews conducted during the adaptation course (Rannut, 2009) revealed that because of the lack of language barrier and smaller cultural distance Russian-speaking immigrants seemed to have much less psychological problems than people from  the Middle-East and Africa, for example.

Psychological and attitudinal factors, such as anxiety, fear (socio-affective filter) influence social communication and social relationships.  As pointed out by Lazarus (1966) individuals who are insecure are likely to seek social support from the less threatening ethnic individuals. Therefore, many immigrants develop relationships only within their own ethnic or linguistic group. They claim that strong ties with the local ethnic community provide support and assistance and ease adaptation (Breckner 2009; Menjivar 1997; Rannut 2009). However, in the long run it becomes an obstacle for immigrants’ integration and social mobility. Often community members they rely on haven’t been successfully integrated themselves and feed to the newcomers their own negative attitudes and frustration instead of helping them.  A good example is a case of Arab community in Estonia  where community members rely more on each other than officials. Once they tried to change driver’s licenses all together by going with a large group and threatening officials instead of asking for a competent advise and just following rules. The adaptation course is definitely a better solution as it provides knowledge and skills on how to cope with many aspects of everyday life.

During the adaptation period it is extremely relevant what kind of feedback immigrants receive from the host society. For instance, in Estonia people who look foreign (e.g. people from Africa, India, Middle-East and Latin-America) but speak at least few words Estonian, get always lot of positive feedback and feel comfortable to speak it even when making lot of mistakes.  On the other hand, people who speak Russian and do not look foreign, get often negative feedback as they are considered to be born in Estonia and still not acquired Estonian. Although, adaptation courses revealed that Russian-speakers acquire Estonian on a much higher level, they often avoid to communicate in Estonian because they are afraid to make mistakes. Thus, in public domains they mostly started conversation by asking “Do you speak Russian?”  instead of using their Estonian language skills. Low motivation, low self-esteem, and debilitating anxiety can combine to raise the affective filter and form a mental block that prevents comprehensible input from being used for acquisition.

To encourage the acquirer to interact with native speakers we involved Estonian mother tongue speakers as points of reference into the process of teaching the language. These persons – representatives of different professions, offered the opportunity to converse with native Estonians in a safe environment in different situations. Volunteers were motivated and prepared for communicative action in the Estonian language, and knew what is expected of them. The presence of integrative motivation encourage the acquirer to interact with speakers of the second language out of sheer interest, and thereby obtain intake. In Stevick’s terms (Stevick, 1976), the integratively motivated performer will not feel a threat from the “other” group and will thus be more prone to engage in “receptive learning” (acquisition), rather than “defensive learning”.