Culture Shock

We’re about to get a new used car – with an automatic transmission!  We feel like we’re entering the 1990’s. It sounds simple – you might even imagine simpler than the manual transmissions we have enjoyed for decades.   Yet I’m anticipating discomfort and trouble.  Change can be hard.

As humans we know things on two levels. For illustration purposes, let’s say we know some things in our head – how to read a map, how to read the manual to adjust the clock.  And let’s say we know other things in our belly – driving on the “right” (i.e. right) side of the road or looking to the left when we cross the street.  Those “belly tapes” of knowledge allow us to bypass our conscious brains and behave appropriately in our regular environments while letting our grey matter focus on more challenging questions.    It’s all good – until – until we find ourselves in a place where the belly tapes don’t work.  Canadians visiting London for the first time stand a good chance of being frightened if not run over while trying to cross the street.

That is culture shock.  The good news is that our brains don’t let us down when we get off an airplane.  The challenging news is that our bellies aren’t programmed to work wherever we’ve landed.   At this stage, they don’t even know what they don’t know.

Culture shock is three things: inevitable, uncomfortable and really useful.

Research has shown that Canadians experience some of their biggest adaptation challenges when they move to places they expect to be similar to home: London, Washington and Paris.  If culture shock happens there, surely it will in Lviv, West Usambaras or Port-au-Prince.  And it happens as inevitably, though maybe more subtly, in two weeks as in two years.

It is uncomfortable because we have expectations that work at home – and now they don’t.   The expectations include our “task” programming.  We are valued and seen as successful as we check off jobs and meet deadlines.   Our international partners may not have the same programming.  They may be programmed to succeed through relating – and if so, your building relationships rather than meeting deadlines will be the key to success.

Finally, culture shock is really useful.  When things don’t work (like looking left when trying to cross the street in London) we gradually become aware that our way is just one way – not the only way – and we make space to learn how someone else sees and does things.  This process of being forced to let go and then take in new perspectives allows us to become comfortable on a personal level and to become effective on a professional level.  We become bicultural.

(This also helps explain the phenomenon of ‘re-entry culture shock’.  When we come home we aren’t the same people who left.  We are aware of new things, we see Canada and the people around us in a new way.  And as with culture shock, it is a good thing, a gift – albeit one we’re not sure what to do with for a while.)

Stages of Adapting

The Chaos Before Leaving.  There is the excitement of being chosen, of reading about the project and place, of having an excuse to buy new gear from Mountain Equipment Co-op.  There is the panic of cleaning work commitments off your desk and making sure the car and furnace won’t break down while you’re away.  Know that when you get on the plane, the chaos will disappear.  Someone else will pick up the leftover pieces, and most of your friends will admire you for what you are doing.

The Honeymoon on Arriving.  I’m here! I smell the air. My feet walk on different earth. Someone get a picture, quick!  Enjoy it.  Life will become normal soon enough.

Denial and Decline:  Our head keeps telling us we’re loving this.  Our gut is collecting a list: Crazy drivers, noisy night streets, worry that we won’t get done what we were supposed to do and even if we do will it have helped?  On FCM assignments, being there with respect and curiosity may be the most important contribution you can make.  Share what you know, accept their generosity, and appreciate that your presence is a gift.   Soon enough you’ll escape the traffic and noise and return to the quiet and peace of another snowstorm.

The Crisis: About a third of the way through being there it is common to conclude that this was a mistake, a waste of time and maybe a moving experience in the wrong way (if we are stuck on a toilet somewhere.)  Know that this is a common experience. Psychologically, the crisis is the consequence of having to let go of so many of our ‘belly’ tape elements.   Symptoms can include grumpiness, a loss of a sense of humour, escape fantasies (“why am I in St.Vincent? I could have volunteered to go to South Sudan!”), and the “us/them” syndrome – collectively judging the entire population of the place we are visiting for not being … well, us.

Seize the day.  It may not seem like it in the middle – but our time there is short.  Somehow when we acknowledge the crisis it begins to pass.  Each day we take in more of the place, the people, the way of engaging and doing business – and before we know it, it will be time, too soon, to come home again.

My Transmission Transition

I suppose my analogy of moving to an automatic transmission isn’t the best.  It will be awkward.  I’ll spend a few weeks stabbing with my left foot for a clutch, and trying to wrestle a linear shift stick into a more elaborate pattern.  And as I move back into our second car, with its manual transmission, I may stall at the corner a few times.  Eventually I’ll become “bi-transmission” and adjust without thinking as I step into each car.

It might have been more illustrative of international experiences if we previously drove only automatics and had to learn to shift deliberately.  Our lives and our work in Canada are largely “automatic”. We function effectively without a lot of conscious adjusting from moment to moment.  Taking on an international assignment may cause us to stall, restart and grind a few gears.  Know that our partners understand, value the effort, and will take pleasure in our learning curve.


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