Course for collision
Whole nations, civilizations, and cultures are on tracks bringing them closer to each other with every passing day, inches from collision. Ordinary people are often not that lucky, forced to be mobile and competitive without first obtaining needed skills or knowledge, accelerating straight ahead into disastrous shock. Many blame education, some – economic realities. I recommend as an alternative a healthy level of self-improvement which is not as difficult to achieve as one might think.
But before that we should ask ourselves how we ended up in the current situation. For most of human history our societies lived in the comfort of closed boxes, creating definitions of themselves and others, “our way” being better than “their way”. Our societies and cultures encountered one another seldom, and sporadically.
The evolution of markets and technologies has brought changes which are far ahead of those in our minds and hearts. And here we are – adapt or be shocked.
Path of a shock
Mobility has become one of the key words used to describe these times. What happens when most of us leave our comfort zones?
Most people who leave home to relocate to a new place experience similar reactions. It all starts with the fascination and excitement connected with experiencing something new. After a while differences become noticeable, then the first problems appear and stress starts to kick in. Frustration may lead to feelings of homesickness or even depression. The downward movement in the initial period is the after effect of dealing with change without preparation, resulting in personal disorientation, a culture chock. After some time there are those who are able to cope with the situation by themselves, slowly developing strategies of adaptation, building new relationships and making new friends. That ultimately leads to acceptance and recognizing the new situation as close to home. Those who decide to go back home often face a second danger: a wave of anger and loneliness coming with a lack of understanding from the family and old friends who simply do not relate to all the changes and challenges that the returnee has experienced.
Please remember that we do not have to travel to experience culture shocks, others (people, technology, art, etc.) visiting us might bring the same emotions. When something new “invades” our box we might get lost as well.
In my eyes the biggest issue of our time, which is building mechanisms of conflict, starts with the lack of understanding of “the other”: the other person, the other nation, the other culture. Given the globally recognized value of mobility, the degree to which creators of curricula neglect the need to learn about the differences between peoples of the world is surprising. The reason why it is so important seems to be fairly obvious. Nonetheless it should be clearly stated – understanding builds a base for peaceful coexistence and cooperation, and for individual well-being. What this means can be approached from at least two perspectives. One, it is beneficial for the global community, period. Second, it is necessary for each person who plans to live a successful and complete life in our global village. Avoiding collisions and conflicts, and the ability to ensure a sustainable future, are among the most crucial elements of our daily routines.
Richard D. Lewis in the preface to a third edition of his book When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures explains that “a working knowledge of the basic traits of other cultures (as well as our own) will minimize unpleasant surprises (culture shock), give us insight in advance, and enable us to interact successfully with nationalities with whom we previously had difficulty” (Lewis, 2006). Where does obtaining that knowledge start? Some might simply pick up Lewis’ book or any other publication summarizing the problem, and that is a good start. Others will do that by learning the language and getting knowledge from psycholinguistic insight. I recommend doing both, but the latter is more interesting as it is a relatively new field of study with a huge insight into how we are wired.
The wide range of research on the topic was a subject of a TED talk by economist Keith Chen who, based on his own study, has shown that language affects even our economic decisions. How? The differences are between languages which distinguish the past, present and future (like English), and those which use the same expressions to discuss events happening in different places on a timeline (like Chinese). “When we speak about the future as distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line” (posted by Jessica Gross on TED Blog, 2013). Other studies prove that some of our abilities are defined by linguistics, e.g. colors. The more our languages are able to name the more we are able to recognize and differentiate.
An individual’s language may influence how he or she thinks (see: Science Daily or Association for Psychological Science). Sometimes we cannot initially understand each other because of exactly that – differences coming from our languages and how they influence our vision of the world. Remembering that really helps in avoiding cultural shocks. But there are more ways:
- educate yourself beforehand, get to know as much as possible about the culture and customs which you are about to experience
- meet people, they will be your guides (here’s a tip: in a new place sign up for a language course or a gym)
- keep a journal
- open your mind, keep calm and stay positive
The tracks lying all over the world which speed up global development are predestined to meet. The junctions already can be found almost everywhere. One can choose to either passively stay on board, jump off in a futile attempt to rebel, or actively participate in the great adventure of fusion. No matter what, dealing with culture shock, with others, is just like any other change or experience in your life: it can be an opportunity, but might be also a threat, all is in your hands.