Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Culture Shock? We Don't Have It!

A. Recognizing It

"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?

The Entry Posture Diagram, from InterVarsity
1. Learn to recognize the signs. (See InterVarsity's "Entry Posture Diagram.") Knowing about culture stress won't keep you from experiencing it, but it can help you separate what happened and how you felt about it from what it means: it will help you suspend judgment. And it will teach you that you do have a choice in the matter. Certain stresses are inevitable but you can choose how to respond.

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


Anonymous said...

Many of the concepts you address in this post are familiar to me though I had never seen that chart. Thanks for posting it.

Marti said...

You're welcome, Angie! I think the reason they call it "The Entry Posture Diagram" is to emphasize that our attitude or approach can make all the difference in the outcome!

JRandal said...

Culture shock is likely seen, also, as a threat to competence, a sign that the person is not handling the situation like he should. So one tends to deny it's happening. Some orientation that it's a part of the natural process might help, but for the independent, boot-strap American, even knowing ahead of time can still conflict with one's belief in the ability to handle (here, to avoid) anything.

DLCarrick said...

Thank you, Marti...XLNT stuff! And it all would make for much smoother entries and transitions for any embarking cross-culturally. For that matter, it would make a world of difference "at home!"

bshantz said...

Thanks so much, Marti - I enjoy your columns.

The concepts you've presented aren't just good for culture shock but for our everyday interpersonal working relationships - especially in Christian ministries. We like to hide the difficulty as if it doesn't exist but let things steam
underneath and it usually surfaces somewhere else.

Thanks again,

Barbara Shantz

Greg Fritz said...

Unfortunately, what you describe is not a uniquely an American issue. I have observed people from other cultures experience culture shock and deny the problem. We should be alert and available to help anyone who is entering a culture new to them.

bcstark said...

Thanks Marti. I remember my first term on the field when I was describing what I was feeling/experiencing and a friend shared with me the stages of culture shock. That was revolutionary to me.

Romance, annoyance, chaos, settled. Just to know there was a name for it was amazing and to know others experienced the same things.

Marti said...

JRM: Anything that threatens our sense of identity, safety, and self-respect is hard to embrace, isn't it!

DLC, Barbara: Thanks for your kind words. Most of the things we learn on the other side of the world have applications for crossing smaller canyons, don't they? And - as Greg points out - applications for people around the world, as well. And sometimes they don't have the resources we might to support them through these pressured situations.

This summer I enjoyed reading a first edition of Marjory Foyle's book about missionaries and stress, "Honorably Wounded." One bit I don't think made it into the revised edition talks about experiencing frustration in one situation and taking it out in another. This made me laugh:

"Suppose the husband has had a bad day at work, and by the end of it is fuming. It is very easy for him to go home and blow-off the irritation on the first person he meets, usually his wife...

"This is called 'displacement' - letting off anger on a substitute rather than dealing with the real cause. It is actually difficult to deal with the real cause while one is still angry, so anger should first be safely released...

"In this case, the husband would have been wiser not to go straight home. In many Asian countries there are tea shops where people gather to drink tea, read the paper, and often enter a political argument. The angry husband should stop at the tea shop, and whether or not he takes sugar in tea should add a spoonful and stir it hard. The sugar raises his depleted blood sugar, in itself a good thing to do if angry, and the act of stirring vigorously is a physical way of displacing anger. Then he should read the paper and discuss the content with the others in the shop, if it is suitable to do so. By these means he will displace his anger harmlessly, and be able to go home in a calmer frame of mind." (p. 46)

Marti said...

BCS: I think just knowing about culture shock can do a lot to help us! When the world around us - and the world inside our heads - are all a-whirl, it can be very reassuring to realize "there may be a reason for this."

Marti said...

A friend who's trying to keep a profile on the web sent some thoughts by email and said I could post them, anonymously:

I understand the Lebanese brother’s feeling, but I think there’s a couple of misconceptions he makes:

1. Admitting something means that I am aware of what it is (or what I think it is). I don’t think people are so much hiding the fact they are facing culture shock, as they don’t realize that is what they are experiencing. The things that make me upset don’t look like ‘culture’, they look like rudeness from a waiter, or laziness on the part of someone I have hired, or people are not sensitive to my needs. What becomes hard to admit, or at least recognize, is that we are all such inherently cultural beings that we can’t reconcile the idea that the other person’s behaviour may actually be culturally appropriate or justified; certainly Christians in any culture would see lying as being wrong! Or someone coming to N America might say, certainly Christians in any culture would see materialistic consumption as being wrong!

2. Different cultures handle culture shock differently, but it’s not at all true that only Americans seem in denial or ignorant of the culture shock they are experiencing. There just happens to be lots of Americans running around out there, so it’s easier to generalize about them. It is the nature of culture that none of us see how cultural we really are!

In terms of how to stay healthy in the midst of all that, I would agree with the recommendations you list. Another would be to have another expat who intentionally listens and asks questions of you on a regular basis, with whom you feel you can be honest about things. That’s hard to do even with a friend who is a national!

Thanks for all your work on the newsletter!

Russell said...

Been in the Middle East nearly 35 years now, and what you said rings true. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls..."? The biggest problem with culture stress is that there's so MUCH of it ALL AT ONCE. If we could deal with one issue, get a handle on it, and then move on to the next one, culture might not be so daunting. But there is no real "honeymoon". It's more like marrying someone after a first date--not unlike arranged marriages--and having to deal with a total stranger and all his/her quirks from Day 1. It's a miracle of God's grace that any of us make it and really learn to "fall in love".

Marti said...

Russell, that's a great analogy!

janincolorado said...

No one has addressed reverse culture shock, when you return and things are just not how you remembered them. Or you've been face-to-face with people overseas, and come home to telephone trees, endless choices, and difficulty even managing to meet for coffee. Time: how long it takes to get anything done when you're overseas, and how little time anything (person or task) is given once you're home.