"Maybe you can tell me," he said, leaning forward, "why Americans never want to admit that they are in culture shock."
The speaker was kind of "American" himself. He spent two decades in the U.S. and married an American woman before returning to the Middle Eastern country where he was born and grew up.
He was still frustrated with how many of those who came to visit and work in his country hit the wall, culture-wise, and didn't even realize what was happening to them. "The first month, it's a honeymoon, they think Lebanon is great. By the third month, it's 'These people are all liars! My landlady lied to me. Maybe you are lying to me right now.'"
Everyone gathered around the table laughed. Most of us have never been to Lebanon, but we know that feeling. We've seen ourselves and teammates do the same thing in other countries. I hate haggling with taxi drivers, for example - hate feeling like I might be ripped off, hate more being the kind of person who is walking about being suspicious about being ripped off. That's right, I don't know who I can trust; I don't know how to tell, don't know what's reasonable. I let it get under my skin.
Culture shock? You bet. A bit of practice, a bit of sympathy, a bit of advice are all it takes, often, to soothe me. Soon I can hail a taxi in the new place without qualms.
I wasn't sure why Americans (and others) are so reluctant to recognize their own culture shock. But as the group chatted we came up with a couple of theories.
1. Lack of experience. "We are too accustomed to being able to trust our guts," said one of us. "Many of us don't have enough experience to realize that something may not be what it seems." So, we think, if it feels wrong, it must be wrong. We're not in culture shock, we may think, subconsciously: we're just in a messed-up culture. It's a mistake anyone can make. But it may be one that those with less cross-cultural experience are more likely to make.
2. Fear of failure. "We are afraid to admit that stuff is bugging us. We are reacting, but try to stuff our feelings and pretend they aren't influencing us. Maybe we don't want to disappoint others, or we are afraid of being sent home." One of the counselor-types in this conversation mentioned that she finds it helpful to use the term "culture stress," instead of "culture shock." To Americans, being under stress is normal, being in shock implies you are sick or broken somehow.
Readers, do you think there are other big reasons that people - and maybe American people in particular - don't want to admit they are in culture shock?
Of course, every culture is corrupt. Though it's untrue to say "Middle Eastern people are liars," the offended American may still be picking up on something that is not just cultural and neutral, but indeed problematic. My Lebanese friend went on to say: You can't accommodate culture on everything. He, for example, refuses to pay bribes. Ever. He fires anyone working for him who does. And this makes things that could be done in days or weeks take months or years.
B. Overcoming It
What can you do to get help or help someone else in culture shock - er, stress? Here are my top tips from my own experience and from observing, coaching, or interviewing others. Anything you'd add?
2. Find a good guide. Do more than just read a book. Find a real person - maybe a fellow expat - who is willing and able to help you. If you are the one experiencing culture stress, look for those who are well adjusted to the culture and sympathetic (to the culture, not just to you!) and ask them to help you understand. Their perspective will be more helpful than someone who is as green as you are. Not that fellow-sufferers aren't comforting as well, but if you really want to grow and adjust, you'll need some additional help from someone further along.
3. Make a local friend. Even just a little bit of time with someone you can relate to and communicate with makes a huge difference. A real, ongoing friendship is best, but even a short home-stay or lunch with a local will probably help you get an insider's perspective. Once I took a patriotic young man to North Africa, one who had a strong anti-Arab bias. He promised to "be good," but if someone started saying anything against his country or his president (as he thought they might) well then, watch out. I talked him through what he might encounter, gave him some strict boundaries, and prayed hard. Turned out it was not a problem - not after he met a cool, young English-speaker who also played the guitar and liked the same kind of music he did. Any political differences melted away.
4. Develop local competence. Learn language, get a map, master the money system. Be the one who uses the phone, or figures out the metro, or buys the snacks. It's OK to be scared, but it's also great to discover things are not so hard as they seem. Get some help, get some advice, bring a friend, but do it. Once you realize it's not such a big deal to ____ or _____, that you don't have to depend on others to take care of such things for you, you'll unwind and be able to engage with the culture without being so uptight and stressed out by it. Before you know it, you may be teaching or taking care of someone else!
That's enough for today, but if I were making a top ten list of tips for cultural adjustment I'd probably add:
5. Celebrate and seek out the stuff you like about the culture.
6. Ask a lot of (open-minded, nonthreatening) questions (of your "guide" or your local friend) to help you learn.
7. Remind yourself that whatever is happening probably makes sense to the people involved.
8. Keep a journal, emphasizing how you feel about things (often healthier than venting to others).
9. Let yourself take breaks, and use them to seek out things that really work to refresh you (hint, it's not the same for everybody).
10. Pray. God is in control. He got there before you did, and he hasn't left you.
I came across a good reflection by some InterVarsity staff workers about their experience with culture stress in Africa. I was looking for that famous Entry Posture Diagram online (the H. family in SE Asia once told me, to my amusement, that their motto was, "The Entry Posture Diagram / will get you out of any jam.") You can read about the IV family's experience living it out, here.
See also: The Problem of Misattribution