“Culture shock” occurs when the subconscious rules and behaviours by which you’ve learned to navigate society do not help you function optimally in a new society. Culture shock makes us feel vulnerable, alone, susceptible, lonely, angry and, sometimes in the extreme, physically ill.
Part of culture shock is our sudden thrust into a world that appears different from our own: different greetings, different language, different dresscode, different hierarchies, different streets…everything seems so different. We search for the familiar, but we can’t find it.
In my cross-cultural awareness classes, I use an onion to illustrate culture to my students. An onion has multiple layers. Each is successively peeled away until you get down to the onion’s core. The outside layers of culture, much like an onion, are easy to see and easy to peel away. These are on the very surface of the onion. In culture, items observed on the surface are those easiest to detect: language, music, food, greetings, transportation modes.
And just as these are easiest to detect, these are also the items that are most easily recognizable as different.
However, as we peel away layer after layer of our cultural ‘onion’, the core of a culture emerges. And what do we find at the core of a culture? Often values, beliefs, expressions, and experiences that are very similar to our own.
Quick example: whether I’m in the UAE, Ghana, France, or Bolivia surface-level culture appears quite different from my own; the languages, foods, music, greetings, and gestures differ from those familiar to my Canadian senses. But ask a woman from these cultures to share the story of when she first met her husband, and a story of love and relationships – terms with which I quickly connect – emerge.
I recently had coffee with a friend who is a mother. She relayed a similar experience – that connecting with women regardless of culture was simple when the topic of raising a teenager emerged. Irrespective of national identity, teenagers around the world, and the mothers rearing them, share similar experiences.
I wonder sometimes if in travelling we are so focused on what’s different that we miss out on so many opportunities to recognize the many attributes most of us have simply because we are human. I have yet to experience a culture where family, however defined, is not the underpinning fabric of society.
The world is a beautiful, mysterious, colourful, and brilliant place. The many differences between and within cultures are part of what constitute this amazing world of ours. These differences play a large part in what makes travel so exciting, interesting, and eye-opening.
But in looking for differences, let’s also not forget the similarities. Recognizing similarities will help you better connect with your new society, better understand the culture, and better understand yourself and your place on the earth as a human.
Let’s celebrate our differences, but let’s not forget – sometimes that old adage is true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.