Updated: May 8, 2020
We are about to get a new car – with an automatic transmission! It sounds simple – you might even imagine easier than the manual transmissions we have enjoyed for decades. Yet I am anticipating discomfort and trouble. Change can be hard.
As humans we know things in two different ways. One involves the active problem-solving capacities of our brain – how to read a map or how to type.
The other involves those things that we have learned so well that they no longer require thought. We walk to the office without problem solving. Our fingers type words without our looking at the keyboard. We have vast collections of this kind of knowledge – which side of the road to drive on, how to shake someone’s hand – or how to drive a manual transmission. Let’s call this our stored knowledge.
Stored knowledge allows us to bypass our conscious brains and behave appropriately in our regular environments while letting our grey matter focus on more challenging questions. It is a good system until we find ourselves in a place where the stored knowledge doesn’t work. Visiting a country where everyone drives on the other side of the road can be a frightening, even hazardous experience. Trying to shift gears manually with my automatic transmission – something I will do from habit for some time - will not work well.
That is culture shock. The good news is that our brains don’t let us down when we get off an airplane. The challenging news is that our stored knowledge may not work wherever we’ve landed. At this stage, we don’t even know what we don’t know.
Culture shock is three things: inevitable, uncomfortable and really useful.
We experience adaptation challenges even when we travel to new cities or regions in our own countries or to international cities where everyone speaks one of our known languages. And it happens as inevitably, though maybe more subtly, in two weeks as in two years.
It is uncomfortable because we have expectations that work at home – and they don’t in this new place. The expectations include what success in the workplace looks like. In some countries we are rewarded for quickly checking off tasks and meeting deadlines. In others, no matter the precision or timeliness of the work, it won’t be recognized unless relationships have first been nourished.
Finally, culture shock is really useful. When things don’t work (like looking the wrong way when crossing the street in a new country), we gradually become aware that our way is just one way – not the only way – and we make space to learn how someone else sees and does things. This process of being forced to let go and then take in new perspectives allows us to become comfortable on a personal level and to become effective on a professional level. We become bicultural.
(This also helps explain the phenomenon of ‘re-entry culture shock’. When we come home we aren’t the same people who left. We are aware of new things, we see our country and the people around us in a new way. And as with culture shock, it is a good thing, a gift – albeit one we’re not sure what to do with for a while.)
Stages of Adapting
The Chaos Before Leaving: There is the excitement of being chosen, of reading about the project and place, of having an excuse to buy new clothes or tools to take with you. There is the panic of cleaning work commitments off your desk and making sure nothing in your house will break down while you are away. Know that when you get on the plane, the chaos will disappear. Someone else will pick up the leftover pieces, and most of your friends will admire you for what you are doing.
The Honeymoon on Arriving: I’m here! I smell the air. My feet walk on different earth. Someone get a picture, quick! Enjoy it. Life will become normal soon enough.
Denial and Decline: Our head keeps telling us we’re loving this. Our gut is collecting a list: crazy drivers, noisy night streets, worry that we won’t get done what we were supposed to do and even if we do will it have helped? For a while, though, our heads will deny that we have these feelings. We are there to do a job! Admitting to fears is not… professional… so we deny them, even as we are discovering that we don’t know how to do our work as easily as we did at home.
The Crisis: About a third of the way through being there it is common to conclude that this was a mistake, a waste of time and maybe a moving experience in the wrong way. Know that this is a common experience. Psychologically, the crisis is the consequence of having to suspend so much of our stored knowledge. Symptoms can include grumpiness, a loss of a sense of humour, escape fantasies (“why am I in St. Vincent? I could have volunteered to go to South Sudan!”), and the “us/them” syndrome – collectively judging the entire population of the place we are visiting for not being… well, us.
Seize the day. It may not seem like it in the middle – but our time there is short. Somehow when we acknowledge the crisis it begins to pass. Each day we are taking in more of the place, the people, the way of engaging and doing business – and before we know it, it will be time, too soon, to come home again.
My transmission transition
I will be awkward at first with my automatic transition. I’ll spend a few weeks stabbing with my left foot for a clutch until I am freshly programmed. And then as I move back into our second car, with its manual transmission, I may stall at the corner a few times. Eventually, I’ll become “bi-transmission” and adjust without thinking as I step into each car.
In the same way, in a new environment we become “bi-cultural”. We learn a new way to greet politely (perhaps shaking hands more lightly and holding on for longer) and then make mistakes when we return home, puzzling people with our strange handshakes. Eventually we internalize both ways. We can drive any transmission with ease and we can behave appropriately in either cultural setting.