A few years ago, friends worked and lived in western Africa. Fascinated with the assignment, wanting to fit in, they began immediately to wear regional garments. Soon they were bestowed names in the local language and began to feel accepted on several levels. But when they had to suddenly flee the country in the midst of unrest, too late they realized they’d missed numerous important cultural cues. No matter how they dressed, or what names they used, they were still observing and processing information through their Western cultural perspective.
The meaning of “culture” is elusive. For this context, let’s define culture as the accepted accumulation of history, patterns, and behaviors in a particular group, passed down across generations. Culture is people and their total way of life -everything we think, say, do. What we punish, what we reward. Our beliefs, attitudes, feelings, habits, language, relationships, values and worldviews.
It’s natural to expect, and easy to notice, cultural differences amidst the challenges of establishing home and work and learning to live amongst others in a new country, because people who move abroad face a number of adjustments all at once. Some people experience it as an aura of glamour. Others find anticipation more delicious than the reality, and the whole thing threatens to jump the tracks. Some believe culture shock is merely an over-rated excuse for various incompetencies. Tasks, abilities, and beliefs previously taken for granted are abruptly challenged. Simple things become difficult and everything takes longer. Commiserating about adjustment issues is a convenient conversational topic when meeting new people and depending upon the interaction, it can be a way to grumble, to keep things superficial, or a point of true sharing and learning.
Cultural conflicts occur commonly, whether in one’s home country or abroad. My clients often express astonishment about encountering cultural differences amongst people of their own nationality. Recently, a client from a major U.S. city remarked about finding as many or more cultural surprises with citizens from different areas of North America as from Colombians. Likewise, Colombians who have lived elsewhere for years and are returning, as well as clients from other South America countries, are also often inquisitive. Regional characteristics vary, no matter the locale.
There is perceived calm in living amongst people we feel are kindred spirits who share our opinions, but we carry our own cultural baggage with us, and being true to one’s personal standards, ethics, and values demands intercultural skill anywhere. Cultural differences are ever-present, even though we may not readily identify them as such.
Consider the cultural changes you’ve already experienced: you moved out of your parents’ home; held a job; university, with various professors having different requirements; changed colleagues, employment or boss. You visited friends, married, became acquainted with others, some of whom held different beliefs, values, traditions, or different levels of expectation and acceptance than your family of origin. Having children alters perspectives, just as does retirement. Different ages and stages of life bring different cultural adjustments, even if we never change neighborhoods.
Every culture has positive and negative aspects. As with other life choices, living in a different country can bring enrichment, intellectual stretching, heightened consciousness of self and others – or it can be disastrous. Expatriates who report the most successful experience are those who continue to learn, explore, and be respectful of their new surroundings, while retaining – and expanding – their own identity.
The quality of our experience will improve the more we learn and understand local culture. Turning the unknown into the meaningful, the strange into the familiar, and the mysterious into the enjoyable takes conscious intentions, good advice, understanding, and practice. There are skills to learn, attitudes to nurture, and help available for the process. It’s been said: “All people are the same; it’s only their habits that are different.” How to get used to, and live with, other people’s beliefs, habits and behavior is what it’s all about.