Culture Shock

September 15, 2011

Culture shock doesn't need to be so shocking! Three qualities to bring into ANY interaction with individuals/groups when faced with varying backgrounds.

Culture shock is an issue that arises not only for people/groups who are doing business in other countries or interfacing with different nationalities and backgrounds, but also for anyone who is transitioning from one environment to another (even if it is a career move to a new department or moving across the country). It can also become an issue in interpersonal relationships.

There are certain people who seem to move effortlesslessly from one culture to another, from one setting to another. They are more able to fiind a connection with people who come from very different backgrounds from themselves and they just don't seem to experience as much "shock" as others when placed in unfamiliar territory. Why is that?

In my travels and in my personal and professional interactions with people of different cultures, backgrounds and careers I have noticed some similarities in those who seem to transition easily and those who do not. Some people focus only on learning about the "new" culture and trying to "fit in" (this happens in some HR departments who focus training on helping their new employees learn about their "new" country). This actually works... for a while, but isn't sustainable. Eventually (and the timing can be very short for some people, longer for others) feelings of frustration, irritation, lonliness, and even depression and anger can set in. This is the moment when you are ready to go home from a trip or the moment you start to seriously question why you moved yourself and your family to another country for your job!

The good news is that there ARE qualities you can learn to develop in yourself (if you want to) that ARE sustainable and can substantially improve your experience with culture shock. So, whether you are an expat living in a foreign country, someone traveling and/or working around the world with people from other cultures, or maybe just developing a personal relationship with someone from a different background, check out these qualities and see how developed they are within you:

  • Open-Mindedness (How curious are you about the world? How able are you to let your judgements go about yourself and others? How open are you to learning about different ways of doing things?)
  • Flexibility (Without giving up who you are at the core, how flexible are you in your behaviors and thoughts? How adaptable are you? Remember Darwin, in discussing survial of the "fittest" actually referred to a high level of adaptability being a core part of the term "fittest", not just strength-the bird does not try to BE a mammal, it just adapts and becomes a bird more likely to thrive in the changing environment)
  • Ability to see the BIG PICTURE ( How easily can you take a step back from the situation and remember the big picture, the reason you are exactly where you are right now? What is your overall intention for what you are doing? Perhaps this is a friendship you do not want to lose, perhaps you know it is what you want for your bigger career goals, perhaps you really want to learn about this other country/culture. The more you can do this, the more easily you can stay open-minded and flexible too!)

In our increasingly global world, these qualities are becoming more critical to people who live/work/travel outside their insular world. The more you can incorporate these qualities into your life, the less likely you will experience major culture shock and the more likely you will be to have a greater sense of ease in any transition. Try it out and see if anything changes and feel free to post any comments!

Have a great September! And join my mailing list (below) if you haven't already.