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Book and Articles
Culture Shock

by Sheida Hodge,

Managing Director, Worldwide, Berlitz Cross-Cultural

Culture shock is what happens when a person suddenly finds himself in a place where yes may mean no, where a fixed price is negotiable, where to be kept waiting in an outer office is not a cause for insult, where laughter may signify anger. It is what happens when familiar psychological clues that help an individual to function in society are suddenly withdrawn and replaced by new ones that are strange or incomprehensible.
-Alvin Toffler
The Sea of Culture

Living at home, we never think about culture. Culture to humans is like water to fish—the fish never stops to reflect on what it means to live in the water. It just swims and goes about its normal routine. But if you take the fish and throw it on a patch of sand, water takes on a whole new meaning. The fish flops around desperately looking for the water it never knew it had! The experience of culture shock is similar. When you encounter a new environment, all the habits and behaviors that allowed you to get around and survive at home suddenly no longer work. Things as simple and automatic as getting lunch, saying hello to colleagues, or setting up a meeting become difficult and strange. The rules have changed without anyone giving you a copy of the new ones.

Whenever we are faced with unfamiliar behavior, we go through varying degrees of culture shock. Symptoms can vary from confusion, loneliness and anxiety to feelings of inferiority, fear, depression and psychological withdrawal. Culture shock is often expressed as intense hostility to another culture. Other people simply shut down. In Cultures and Organizations, Geert Hofstede comments that culture shock “returns us to the mental state of an infant.” Not understanding the rules of the game leads to “feelings of distress, helplessness and hostility towards the new environment.”

Hostility, anxiety or depression can affect a person’s judgement and ability to communicate during delicate negotiations. Managerial duties can become a daily encounter with the enemy. Culture shock is a leading cause of early repatriations that can be quite costly for the company. Younger people generally have an easier time adjusting to new cultures and situations because they haven’t formed a rigid view of the world and how things “should” be done. Adults are more likely to see the differences of other cultures as deficient or threatening. Living abroad can be especially difficult for spouses or children who come along on overseas assignments. Without a job to give them direction and a stable point of contact with the other culture, they can feel especially lost and helpless.

Chinese Water Torture

The effects of culture shock accumulate slowly. A few seemingly harmless negative experiences can end up poisoning your attitude about another culture. It is like Chinese water torture - the first few drops you don’t even notice, but as time goes on the drip, drip, drip can drive you crazy. On a trip to China several years ago I met a businessman in the throes of culture shock. I had gone to China to visit factories and evaluate industrial products for G.E. Trading Company of New York. I stayed in an old hilltop hotel in Guiyang with one of the most dramatic settings I’ve ever seen. The view from my balcony was stunning: a peaceful river wound through craggy mountains forming a picture as perfect as a Chinese painting. The rising mist from the river made it seem like the hotel was floating on a green island in the clouds.

One evening the hotel manager asked if I would like to meet another Westerner staying at the hotel. A short time later he escorted a tall man clutching three enormous bottles of Chinese beer into my suite. The poor fellow looked as though he’d had several bottles before he got there. My first reaction was to ask him how he liked being in this exotic and magical spot. To my surprise, he responded with a tirade about how much he hated the place and how sick he was of China and the Chinese! He’d been in China five months on his first foreign assignment installing a communication system. He accused his Chinese counterparts of being “sneaky” and hard to deal with. He complained about the size of the soap (I hadn’t even noticed the soap) and the roughness of the toilet paper. After he got off work, he had nothing to do so he just sat in his room and drank.

Just imagine how this man’s state of mind affected his work! He was so depressed it was a wonder he was getting anything done at all. And his suspicions and resentments must have made it torture for his Chinese counterparts to work with him.

Of course, not everyone ends up experiencing this degree of culture shock. People vary a great deal in their ability to deal with different cultures. Some people get severely depressed or hostile after just a few days in another culture. Others seem to thrive on the excitement of living in a new place and working with new people; they may only experience occasional irritation or confusion. Still others adjust well to one culture but have a terrible time with another.

The Stages of Culture Shock

In Cultures and Organizations, Hofstede describes the stages one goes through while adjusting to life abroad. The first stage involves a romance with the surface features of a culture. Tourists and business people on short trips experience other cultures in this stage. Everything is new, different and exciting and feelings for the new environment are very positive.

(From Cultures and Organizations, page 210.) The second stage is culture shock. The lack of familiar reference points and behavioral norms leads to overload and withdrawal. Feelings for the new culture become very negative. This stage often arrives for business travelers after the initial greetings and ceremonies are over and they find they have to survive in a new environment on their own without being treated as the “honored guest” any longer.

The third stage is a gradual period of acculturation during which the visitor learns to operate according to the norms and values of the other culture. This period requires work - getting out and interacting in a meaningful way with people in social and work settings. Finally, in the fourth stage one arrives at a stable state of mind that marks the permanent level of adjustment to the other culture. This stable state can remain negative (the person feels more or less permanently alienated), neutral (a good healthy bi-cultural ability) or positive (the person “goes native”).

What Can be Done to Deal With Culture Shock?

The best defense against culture shock is knowledge of how other cultures operate. In Culture Shock: Psychological Reactions to Unfamiliar Environments, Adrian Furham and Stephen Bochner point out that culture shock is not a psychological disorder but a lack of social skills and knowledge needed to deal with a new environment. Even when things seem alien and disorienting, knowing some of the rules gives us reference points and a degree of confidence. Dealing with other cultures, in other words, is a skill that we can learn.

The degree of culture shock you experience does not necessarily depend on how long you’ve spent in another country. You don’t absorb other cultures through osmosis. Going out to eat in local restaurants and dealing with merchants isn’t enough. You have to spend time with local people and learn how they live and work.

One businesswoman returning to the U.S. from an assignment in Poland was astonished by the American expat ghettoes. Associating only with your own countrymen is a sure sign of culture shock. It shows you are seeking the comfort of the known and the familiar rather than confronting and learning about difference. To really adjust to a new culture you need to learn ways to operate in the world. They may never be “your” ways, but unless you learn to use them you’ll always be on the outside.

The Ugly American Syndrome Many Americans are so sensitive about appearing disrespectful to other cultures that they ignore their own rights and needs. This can exacerbate the experience of culture shock. When Judy Lukas’s husband was transferred to Spain, she followed with a great deal of excitement. A few days after their arrival, they were invited to an afternoon fiesta. They accepted expecting a leisurely lunch and festivities in the town square. When they arrived they were shocked to find that the fiesta was really a bull fight! The atmosphere, she said, was a combination of an American football game and a slaughterhouse. Young children were there eating candy while bulls were being butchered in front of their eyes. They found the idea of staying very distasteful but felt that if they walked out they would offend their hosts. They ended up spending the afternoon looking at their shoes in extreme discomfort.

After hearing this story, I called a senior executive from Spain who lives in Southern California. His first reaction was that all of his American friends love bullfights. But then he pointed out that Spaniards are very direct. “If you object to doing something,” he said, “just tell them. They’ll understand. Just don’t preach to them about the unfairness or brutality of the event.”

The Flip Side of Culture Shock

For many people a foreign assignment can be the opportunity and thrill of a lifetime. The Wall Street Journal (11/19/97) reports the story of John Aliberti, who had spent his career working to become a mid-level manager for Union Switch in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Aliberti seemed like an odd choice for an overseas assignment. He had no experience in international travel, but when he was chosen to represent the company as technical expert and representative in China, Aliberti responded with enthusiasm: “Back home, the work we do, it’s been done for decades. In China you’re breaking new ground. It’s a milestone in the history of the world.”

By viewing his China assignment as an exciting adventure, Aliberti largely bypassed the negative effects of culture shock. According to the Journal, “The crowds and chaotic lines don’t phase him. He becomes animated telling stories of long train trips to out-of-the-way cities like Nanchang, where Union Switch is helping to build a railroad yard... In the last four years, he has become an expert at dealing with the infuriatingly slow Chinese bureaucracy.”

Aliberti’s enthusiastic attitude and his active interest in learning about the culture and business practices in China have helped him become a central figure in his company’s China operations. His job in Pittsburgh is two rungs below vice president. In China, according to his boss, “he acts like a president or CEO. That’s got to turn him on.”

What Can Companies do to Deal with Culture Shock?

To get around the adjustment problems of American executives and their families working abroad, U.S. companies have turned to talented locals or dipped into the stock of “off-the-shelf” immigrant Americans. But this seemingly obvious solution can give companies a false sense of security. Immigrants who have lived away from their home cultures - often since childhood - can feel just as out of place as any foreigner. Returning emigrants don’t get the benefit of the extra consideration locals extend to native Americans. And local hires - regardless of how talented they are - still need to adjust to the new rules and culture of the parent company.

Managers should remember that some people are simply much better suited than others for work in foreign cultures. Many American companies send people abroad because of technical skills or company organization. But it would be well worth screening people going abroad for their aptitude to living and working abroad - especially on long-term assignments. In Working in America, Takashi Kiuchi, a managing director of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, describes the kinds of people inappropriate for assignment in the U.S.: Unless the person is interested in the history and culture of the country it is quite meaningless to live here. Another condition of living in a foreign country would be to have a feeling of appreciation for the host country. I, myself, am very appreciative of the opportunity to live in the U.S.

The same advice applies to Americans going abroad. Companies should seek people with a sense of adventure and the ability to adapt to new situations. These qualities can often be just as important as language skills or detailed cultural knowledge. Careful preparation and training can prevent costly problems down the road. Learning the proper skills for dealing with other cultures can reduce or eliminate the negative impact of culture shock. Intercultural education should be a regular part of corporate training programs - both for executives going overseas and for the domestic workforce. Returning Home: Culture Shock in Reverse The homecoming of returning expats is often just as shocking as the experience of going abroad in the first place. The Wall Street Journal (12/12/95) reports the case of Ira Caplan, who came back to the United States after 12 years living in Japan:

He had never heard of Rush Limbaugh: “I listened once and it was enough.” He was so politically incorrect that he didn’t know what “PC” meant: “I got a book on it.” Prices astonish him. The obsession with crime unnerves him. What unsettles Mr. Caplan more, though, is how much of himself he has left behind.

Once people adjust to living abroad, they often find expat life exciting and glamorous. “I was running briefing breakfasts for congressmen and senators,” said Caplan. Now he’s just another mid-level executive in New York.

Coming back to their “old job” is often the most traumatic part of returning to the U.S. Ways of doing business have been changing dramatically in the U.S. -just as they have all over the world. The old job usually doesn’t exist anymore, and expats often find they don’t fit into the new scheme of things. After a time, many are laid off or simply quit.

The problems of adjustment and culture shock for returning employees can be as severe as those involved in sending them abroad in the first place. Companies make an enormous investment in their expats, and they should think carefully about how to utilize the expertise they have gained. As Caplan remarks about his experience: “You’re a source of wisdom overseas. Once you get back, it’s all over. Nobody can relate to your experience.” Or, to quote from the “Marble Faun” by Nathaniel Hawthorne:
Now... they resolved to go back to their own land; because the years have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. But ... if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries, we have none at all... It is wise, therefore, to come back betimes, or never.

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