There are two main views on the nature of culture: the behavioral and the ideational.
In the behavioral view, culture is what people do or make that can be observed. In this view, culture is more objective and its knowledge can be represented in statistics. This view assumes that behavior and physical culture represent what goes on in people's heads. Besides, it's an excellent assumption for exploring cultural habits of which people are not conscious; you can look at objects and behavior, and discover norms that people follow.
In the ideational view, culture is essentially about how people think, even though it might be reflected in what people do and the physical environment. Culture involves the kind of knowledge valued by people in a cultural grouping , their identity as individuals and as a group, their view of relationships and society, how they teach and learn, how they interpret new ideas coming into their culture, and their view of the world. Unfortunately, it is difficult to dig out of people's heads.
Etic and Emic
Etic means seeing a culture from the outside. A tourist finds cultural aspects interesting to look at but doesn't take the time to understand them.
Emic means seeing things from the viewpoint of the people in the target culture. Their way of life probably makes perfect sense to them, even if it seems illogical or frustrating to you. There are almost certainly very good reasons why they are like they are.
Surface and Deep Cultures
Some people have thought of culture differently, as surface versus deep culture. Surface culture is what we do and say: the food, the clothes, houses, traffic, rules of etiquette, observable behavior, etc. These are the issues to which people think they must adjust first.
Deep culture refers to how we think and what we assume, and may be very unconscious. This includes identity and loyalties, value systems, subconscious motives, system of logic, and view of world.
Surface Culture Issues
Deep Culture Issues
Use of space
Rules of etiquette
Observable behaviour, etc.
Identity and loyalties
Systems of logic
View of the world.
Culture is people
In the end, however, culture is not so much about theoretical abstractions, but is about real people. Yes, there is an academic discipline called cultural anthropology, and it is very helpful. But it is too easy to to err on the side of forgetting one is really dealing with people and their feelings, views, and beliefs.
What is cultural adaptation?
Emic means seeing things from the viewpoint of the people in the target culture. Your aim is to see the world from their point of view. Expect to find strengths and weakness in both your own culture and in your new culture. Their way of life probably makes perfect sense to them, even if it seems illogical or frustrating to you. There are almost certainly very good reasons why they are like they are.
Remember that they are people who are just as human as you are. Some people adjust well because they're used to seeing things from other people's viewpoints and don't mind others being different from them.
There are two ways to learn a culture. In the usual way, you enter a new culture and face different kinds of realities. You become frustrated, although this might not be particularly conscious. You might then realize the cultural issue and interpret it seeking new insights. However, not everybody realizes the cultural issue; some people become bitter or develop unhealthy survival responses.
The other way is better. Before you go into a culture, you learn at least some of its major features. When you arrive, you have regular orientation and meet with a mentor or a group of friends. When you face new realities, you recognize and accept them, even though they are seldom exactly as you anticipated. You then interpret the cultural issue and seek new insights. Even so, it is normal to be very frustrated at times, but at least you have ways to minimise it and its effects, and to maximise your learning and adjustment.
Cultural adjustment takes several stages:
The honeymoon phase. Everything is fun--you play the tourist, enjoy meeting people, and having lots of new experiences. At this stage, it's all adventure.
The beginning of culture shock. It's been somewhere between three and six weeks since you arrived. You feel you've had a good visit but it's not fun any more and now you're ready to go home. The honeymoon is over. The only problem is that you now live here and this is home. It just doesn't feel like home.
Expect to go through a period of culture shock; almost everybody does. The symptoms will only be obvious in hindsight, but proper mentoring can make a huge difference.
Deep culture adjustment You are fitting in all right, but you occasionally need to work through small problems that have been caused by cultural misunderstanding. You have come to fit in, although the old country is still home. As you look back, you might your very earlier stages as having a tourist mentality, and see the extent of your culture shock.
Third culture person. You've made the emotional move, and this is now home. Your worldview is changing and your emotional investment in making the necessary adjustments is starting to pay off. The way they do things here makes more and more sense, and it seems just as good (and better in these circumstances) than the way they did it back in that place you once called home. You might even start to forget many details of your home country.
You might not even want to move back to your old country because you've put down so many roots here and given so much energy into building a career here. Your children might have been born here and don't have much tying them to the other place. You might have even married a local person, and all your most treasured possessions and memories are here.
The maturation factor. Not all changes in outlook result from cultural adaptation. Whether or not you spend the next five or ten years in another culture, you are maturing and will change anyway. You cannot know exactly what you would have become if you'd stayed in your home culture.
In educational research, the way to account for the maturation factor is to use statistical results to compare groups of people (e.g. one group who lived in another culture and one who didn't). It is uncommon to find a large enough number of third culture individuals that are similar enough to be compared. Most cultural information is notoriously difficult to quantify, and it is more productive to explore the experiences of a range of individuals.
The scenario: you're brand new in a completely different culture and climate. This is your first week. Your first need is to survive. These skills are much like tourist skills, but are harder if you're going to live somewhere for a long time.
One way to view the situation is as personal space. On the first day, you need to know where your belongings are, where you'll sleep, who your host is, and how to get the basic necessities of life (food, the bathroom, etc.) That's not a lot of personal space, but many people need to know that there is somewhere that is their little part of the world. It helps you feel that you have some control over your life.
Ask your host how you get clothes laundered. And you'll minimize a potential tension point if you know how much your accommodation costs and to whom you should pay as early as possible. Of course, you'll want to communicate with people "back home" either by email, telephone or postcard.
During the next few days, make sure you get plenty of rest because the change to a new place is usually inexplicably tiring. Unpack and organize your things, and take some walks around the neighborhood to expand your personal space. Make your own map and draw in landmarks that you notice. You'll soon start to feel familiar with your area, and local people might start to recognize you.
A common initial reaction to a new culture at this stage is to love it. Everything seems novel and fun. That's why it’s a good idea to take your camera and get photos now, because later on you won't even notice many things that are radically different from your home country.
Meet your new co-workers. Try some local food. Go to local shops, and visit the city centre.
Get someone to explain a little about the public transport and try it a couple of times. You might need instruction on how to prevent your belongings from being stolen. But you can expand your personal space to the size of a city when you know you can catch public transport anywhere you want without help and get yourself home again. (It's amazing that some people go for years without using the public transport, and their personal space is very limited.)
All the time you're learning lots more than you think:
a new daily schedule,
how to live in a different climate,
how not to offend your host family,
how to dress according to local dress standards (as opposed to tourist dress standards)
the layout of the town, and
how to sleep.
The last one isn't so obvious, but you'll know what I mean if you've ever moved to a new bed with a different mattress in a noisy room. How about all-night mosquitoes, late night or early morning traffic, a 4.00 a.m. mosque call over a loudspeaker, quarter-hourly bell chimes all through the night, or full sunlight from the first rays of dawn?)
The next step is to become a little more independent. Learn how to greet people, get money from the bank, get a feel for how much buying power the currency has, and buy your basic personal supplies.
Some people find shopping very threatening. If you want an particular item, it might be in a specific kind of shop in a specific part of town.
When you find the shop, you might be unable to find the item you want. Perhaps you don't know the local word for it. You might find that they don't have the same sort that you have back home but have an equivalent product that is totally unfamiliar to you. You might be unable to choose because:
none of the brands are familiar
you don't know what quality to expect
you don't know what price you should pay
you don't know your consumer rights (Will I be able to get a refund if the item doesn't work? How do I get a guarantee and will it be valuable or worthless?)
You might not even know the buying procedure (bargain, ask for a discount, pay the full price to the person behind a counter, get a note to take to the cashier, or something else.)
You'll figure out all these things fairly soon, even faster if you're an experienced tourist.
Later, you can make superficial friendships, although you might be swamped with friendly people, for example, students who want to practice their English.
All the cultural theory is absolutely important, but not necessarily much help at first unless you're unusually observant. You'll probably be preoccupied with more superficial things like the unusual water containers, or the way people design houses, unusual clothes, fancy public buildings, different traffic rules, and unusual modes of transport.
You might be given a list of cultural "rules" to follow. Superficial things can be extremely important; so just follow the rules for now, but understand that almost certainly there are good reasons for them. Ask questions, but don't expect to understand everything straight away. Just accept that to them, it makes perfect sense.
BIG Hint: Keep a diary of your questions and the answers your were given, your observations, and things to which you had to adjust.
Culture shock normally sets in after the honeymoon phase. It is the abnormal social and emotional reactions that are caused when one's knowledge of past experiences does not help to know what to expect or how to respond. Not everyone is the same; some people don't have it at all and some have serious problems. One person hid in her house for the first two weeks in a new country, afraid to go even past the front door.
There are several elements that blend together but affect one in roughly the order below.
At this stage the physical environment might be threatening enough, without even starting to relate to people. Lots of things are different: food, not knowing your way around, the layout of ordinary houses, using the bathroom, climate, use of space, traffic rules, money, houses, vehicles, paperwork, separation from your normal support group of family and friends. You have little resistance to the local infections and might become sick easily, even in very healthy conditions.
Everybody speaks a foreign language; you can't even talk to people or understand what they say.
If you're going to where people speak a different dialect of your language, you might be confused by accents, non-standard words, idioms, and normal words with different meanings. In cases of subcultures, specialized jargon will be confusing.
You don't know what people expect of you nor what you should expect of them. You might go to great lengths to avoid offending people, and either get frustrated by the process or discover new ways of offending them. You might find that they have a wrong stereotype of you and your ethnic group or race.
They might also treat you just the same as they treat everybody else, but you're not used to being treated in that way.
If you've started to learn language, it might evaporate when face to face with a real person who speaks only that language. Having to communicate with a real person is its own kind of shock.
You have great difficulty making decisions, even if they are minor. You go to the shop to buy something and don't know which brand to buy (they don't have you normal brands from back home).
Too much of the future is an unknown so how can you make big decisions correctly? Besides, your expectations are not necessarily realistic. You want to rent a house but don't know what you should expect.
If you a moving cultures through organizational channels, mistakes are normal and you should accept this early. Of course you understand that organizations make mistakes. But it's hard to be objective when they make mistakes with your life, and it can easily lead to blame, anger, frustration, distrust of motives, gossip, and communication breakdown.
As you know very little about the new culture, your expectations of your organization will probably be unrealistic.
Look at the potential mix of cultural expectations between you and the person who helps you adjust:
If a local helps you adjust, he/she might have difficulty meeting your foreign expectations.
If a well-adjusted expat helps you, he/she will expect you to adapt easily to local norms.
If an expat from a different culture helps you, then he/she might have expectations from his own culture as well.
If a poorly adjusted expat helps you adjust, he/she might not be able to point you in the right direction.
You are also a wild card: they do not really know what you want until you arrive.
Besides, some organizations don't give help at all and work on a "sink or swim" principle. They point to a few successes to prove their approach works, and ignore their many drownings.
Shock of discovering yourself
You find new limitations and abilities within yourself. You also surprise yourself with your responses to the culture around you. You might also become irrationally defensive about your own culture. Or you might find that the new place is a very nice place to live.
BIG Hint Keep a diary of your questions and the answers your were given, your observations, and things to which you had to adjust.
Culture shock is more insidious than it seems because many reactions are unconscious.
The subjective factor means that you cannot see yourself clearly. No matter how far off centre you are, it feels like you're balanced and the whole world is wrong. People feel they are being objective about their surroundings but can be in deep culture shock without realizing it, and deny it when others point out their behaviour.
The hindsight factor means that you will probably only fully realize the extent of your culture shock after you have been through the worst of it.
Culture shock causes different reactions, and they tend to be most sharply felt in specific issues. You accept some things, but other things really annoy you. Even then, it might feel that everything (not just the problem spots) eventually is too much. Here are some of the most common reactions:
Become tired or exhausted, sleep a lot.
Feel angry or frustrated (without knowing why)
Feel you've failed, or suffer depression
Headaches, stomach pains, vague pains all over
Appear to adjust very well and do everything right, but fail to cope emotionally
Become afraid or suspicious of people around you
Try to withdraw (even set up your room or house like a miniature world of your home country) and form a ghetto with friends from your own cultural or language backgrounds)
Organize frequent holidays back home (This is an unadmitted strategy to avoid emotionally committing yourself to living in the new culture; your time in the new country is just a series of very long visits.)
Become critical of your host culture, comparing it negatively to your home country
Become very defensive that you are coping emotionally when you aren't
Resent being told how to do basic things (eating, getting dressed, using a toilet, catching a bus) with the result that you become overconfident and unwilling to take advice
Create stereotypes (overgeneralizations) of the people around you
Criticize your organization. In some cases it might be blameless, but small mistakes or inadequacies become major traumas
Become overly extroverted and friendly, believing that by relating to people in this way you are adapting well. (However, others note that you are rather "odd" and not fitting in as well as you think you are.)
"Go native" This is particularly unhealthy; it involves rejecting your home culture and accepting the externals of the host culture without becoming a different person internally. You're just a foreigner pretending to be a "native."
An intense feeling of homesickness might recur on your next birthday and at Christmas if you were used to having special times together with your friends and family in your home country. Your first vacation might also bring back memories of vacations in your home country.
The general trend in the last couple of decades has been to provide better mentoring and group sessions, so that these issues get identified as early as possible. By being more fully aware of how culture shock works, people can admit and cope with their difficulties earlier.
BIG Hint Keep a diary of your questions and the answers your were given, your observations, and things to which you had to adjust.
Before arriving, some people:
learn enough language for basic conversation
read about the new culture,
are naturally more sensitive and perceptive to the feelings and reactions of the people around them,
have the ability to ask more insightful questions,
have thick skins while being very accepting of different situations, and/or,
have already learnt another culture as an adult so are better equipped to appreciate cultural differences.
Culture is too complex and all-inclusive to allow you to anticipate specific questions and problems. No matter how helpful a written guide is, it cannot fully replace a person who can help solve problems as they arise.
You need a support person or group of friends to whom you can ask questions with whom you can share your joys and frustrations. A support group might be a group of peers with whom you are simply good friends. A mentor is one or more individuals who will monitor and help your adjustment process. For this reason, if people are left to their own resources, married couples tend to support each other and survive more easily than do many single people.
Dealing with ethnocentricity
One aspect of learning culture is to challenge your own prejudices. All peoples are naturally ethnocentric, that is, they believe that their own ideas are superior to those of others. They think, "I'm right and my way makes most sense." This translates into:
My race is superior.
Books in my language are better.
Experts from my race know most.
Education in my country is the ideal.
My country's diet is healthiest.
Houses in my country are designed better.
Advice from expatriate advisors from my country or race is more objective than advice from nationals.
Traditional local knowledge is backward or worthless.
Concepts of beauty from my country are best (local ideas are ugly).
Our ideas of marriage, family and personal rights are better.
We have better ideas on who should be respected and who should be respectful.
Ethnocentricity can create some bizarre phenomena in cultural adjustment. Persons can come to believe that:
"If these people are poorer than me, then they must be dirty or stupid."
"If these people are poorer than me, their culture must have no valuable education traditions."
"You can't buy anything here; I have to get someone to send everything to me from home."
"If they made it here, it can't be good quality."
Various dynamics happen in a one-to-one intercultural meeting. Some are discussed elsewhere as roles and effects of culture shock.
The appropriate response is to respect that the other person with his or her own unique personality, and to establish an appropriate relationship. This normally involves acceptance, trust, mutual understanding and friendship, but these vary greatly with the kind of relationship (you treat bank managers, waiters, neighbors, and relations differently from each other), and according to local etiquette. (Remember many cultures value politeness over friendliness, and honesty means different things in different places.)
Once the idea was that communication was simply this:
Speaker →Message → Listener
This was then made a little more sophisticated, because the speaker actually interprets what he saying when he puts it into symbolic form. That is, he/she encodes it. The listener also interprets the message, which is the decoding process.
Speaker → Encode → Message → Decode → Listener
It was realized that various factors affect the listener's understanding of the message. In those times, those factors seemed random and unpredictable, so they were labelled "noise":
The present trend has been to make sense of noise by explaining the factors coming into play.
You receive a gold-embossed invitation from the Japanese Ambassador to meet the Japanese Prime Minister in a luxurious city hotel. It says that he believes you have particular expertise and he would like your advice. You think this is odd, and wonder if you might get a high-paid job in Japan as a result. The invitation lists a certain day and time and asks that you get a quarter hour briefing with the translator on Japanese etiquette beforehand.
All goes as planned. You arrive at the hotel, attend the briefing, and meet the Japanese Prime Minister. He carefully asks some thoughtful questions, to which you reply. He listens carefully and asks more questions. At the allotted time, the appointment ends and you leave the hotel. On the way out you meet an old friend who asks what you do and tries you out with a few questions. Time is no problem of either of you, so you talk over coffee at a fast-food joint.
As it happens, both the Prime Minister and your friend asked exactly the same questions. However, they received very different answers. You also dressed up for the Prime Minister, but wouldn't do so for an old friend. You adapted your approach based on context:
How the meeting came about (e.g. carefully planned vs. spontaneous.)
Who introduced you (Ambassador's letter vs. old friends)
The appearance and trapping of surroundings (e.g. luxury hotel vs. fast-food joint)
Preliminary observations of attitude
Expectations of meeting (catch up with friend vs. links with Japanese government)
This means that the simple questions themselves and your expertise did not totally determine the answers.
Other dynamics can also affect a meeting between two people of different cultures:
Your racial or ethnic appearance distracts me from communication. I am uncomfortable with your appearance (skin color, shape of face, height, smell, clothes or grooming)
I am uncomfortable because I am self-conscious of my appearance (skin color, shape of face, height, smell, clothes, or grooming)
You should follow my rules because they're the only rules I know, or I think they're universal, or I feel nervous, threatened or vulnerable.
I communicate with you according to my idea of your ethnic group and try to fit into aspects of your culture (role, power, status, and proxemics).
I am confused: are you treating me as part of your culture or as a foreigner? In the case of two people from different cultures, each can be trying to act as part of the others' culture. (E.g. the English-speaker speaks Indonesian and the Indonesian speaks English.) It can be then that each gets the others' culture wrong.
I have a stereotype of your culture.
I am a pseudo-anthropologist. "I've read the theory of your culture and assume it represents you as an individual." That is, I create an academically informed stereotype.
I expect to be treated with racial or ethnic prejudice, for example, inferior, superior, unknowing, knowing, etc. I might not appear defensive, but might adjust my communication to expected prejudices. I might privately enjoy or resent it.
When both sides realize which set of rules applies and naturally know what to do and feel what is right, then these dynamics have little role. It is a natural relationship between two people who understand each other.
The hardest part
Commitment is the biggest challenge. Why should they trust you?
The normal approach is that an outsider goes into the ethnic community, becomes friendly and makes the necessary superficial cultural adjustments such as clothes, food, attending significant social functions, and avoiding giving offence. You might be interested in their history, art forms, and ethnic sports. You might live as near them as practical.
This might gain acceptance in the community, but you are still a long-term friendly tourist who wants to go home after doing time. It will not necessarily gain much credibility.
They want more: they want to know that you are committed to them. Living there and investing time in learning their ethnic language is usually respected as a commitment, but might be necessary for even basic acceptance. It is more than that. It's about deep-seated attitude and identity.
The point is that you must change to see life from their viewpoint. You have to go through the inner personal change. Their cultural ways become your obvious, logical, natural, responses. They probably will never count you as one of their own, but they can come to you as if you were one of their own. To do these you will have to sacrifice some of your own ethnic identity.
When confronted with this idea, most new intercultural workers believe they have made the commitment. New intercultural workers tend to think that if I eat the food, live in their houses, speak their language, use their etiquette, and buy in their shops, then they have made the cultural crossing. But they are just complying with the rules of surface culture, not with deep culture. They may not realize it, but they are fakes.
Expect that some local people will be able to read you better than you think; some people can easily identify a fake and know the difference between an immigrant and a tourist.
First, look at your motives. Are you out for their best interests, or something else, like graduating with a good research paper or achieving your organization's goals? From time to time, conflict will probably arise that tests your ethnic loyalties. In time of difficulty, do you simply run away or do you stay where you live? Can you say that the local ethnic viewpoint on a topic is right and the view of your home culture is wrong?
Second, value their ethnic identity: "It's good to come from your ethnic group." It will make a lot of difference, especially if they feel that other ethnic groups look down on them.
Third, value them as individuals; they are not primarily informants, targets, or statistics. When you're interested in people, you can get past your stereotypes and make friends—some may be very nice people. They aren't all the same and can be very different from each other. They have grumpy and good days, weaknesses and strengths. Some are crooks and some are model citizens. Some are open, some are not.
If you have made these changes, you cannot go back to being a mono-cultural person. You have realized that the worldview of your native culture is not the only possible logical view of the world.
It is best for the mentor to be of the same culture (or at least culturally very close) to the new person. The main reasons is that one can feel more comfortable with someone with whom they can speak their own language and act naturally, rather than have to conform to some unnatural guidelines. There are cases where the mentor is a person of the target culture, but this seems to work best when they have an appropriate temperament and have lived abroad where they become more international and intercultural in their approach.
There are also cases where the mentor has been a mono-cultural person of the host culture and the newcomer has done well. However, it might be that the newcomer is simply a good survivor.
Very little formal study seems to have been done on cultural mentoring. It is seldom that one person has all the wide-ranging kinds of skills to do all parts of the mentoring process equally well, and it is best to have a range of people take on different aspects. Some of the main qualities are:
highly personable and sympathetic, with some counseling skills
ability to understand the newcomer from his/her cultural viewpoint
understands people in the local culture
organizationally as neutral as possible
The need for organizational neutrality is difficult in organizations where the branch leader is automatically designated the mentor. When the newcomer is frustrated with the organization, the person who should be the source of help is the main problem, and thus compounds the problem.
It is also important that mentors not be imposed, but rather that there be some natural personal affinity. In fact, people tend to seek help from those to whom they naturally gravitate. An excellent mentor for one person might not be helpful for another. This is especially the case with single people, who need a mentor of their own gender.
The mentor can create a forum where can people be honest about how well they are coping and give each other more objective feedback. He/she can also give on-time feedback that helps people work though issues at the time rather than in hindsight.
The mentor or support group can help newcomers work though different aspects of culture shock:
Situational People ask all sorts of questions like: "Where do you buy a …..?" "How do you go to ….?" "How do I pay this bill?" "What can I do for fun on weekends?" It's reasonable to expect that people will eventually be able to get this information from locals, but it's far more efficient to have a mentor that can provide simple information quickly.
Language The mentor needs to ask regularly, "How is your language course going? Do you get out to talk regularly to neighbors and people on the road? Does the present textbook and teacher work for you?" Again, people ask all sorts of questions:
"I spoke to a lady and she reacted … What happened?"
"How can I … without offending X?"
"X comes to my house every day but I don't know why."
"I don't get along with team member Y and it's his/her fault."
Organizational Mentors might be the best people to ask about organizational tensions. How can we handle this misunderstanding? What issues do you need to communicate with your organization?
Self-discovery. Most people really need personal pastoral care, although different people might have widely varying needs. Some might just want companionship, while other might want a counselor.
My personal preference is to include also a study of the culture from written sources and from visits to culturally important sites. It does not benefit everyone equally, especially as some people are not interested in understanding a great deal or in reading.
Cultural immersion programs are a closely related but separate topic.
How to learn a culture
Assume that people have very good reasons for what they do.
It may be that in some cases, the reasons are historical or social rather than your idea of pragmatic, but if you see their viewpoint, historical reasons make good sense. In other cases, people might explain the reasons to you, but you can't yet understand the explanation. When you have learnt more, the it might click into place and make perfect sense.
It may be that something doesn't have good reasons and some locals might want improvement. But you cannot assume phenomena don't have good reasons; give local people the benefit of the doubt so that you can explore.
Here's a simple example: Western newcomers always thought that the traffic is our city was chaotic, that it had no traffic rules. However, there were are two sets of rules, those that the police use to apportion blame, and those that everybody uses to get around. Most people obeyed those rules, and like anywhere, there is a small proportion of dangerous drivers. Part of the reason behind this thinking is that very "nonchaotic" (Western) road rules don't work when the roads are narrow for the very high volume of traffic and only twenty percent of the traffic is cars. The remainder comprises small motorcycles, oxcarts, pedicabs, bicycles, busses, minibuses, and trucks. All have different acceleration rates, traveling speeds, and abilities to weave, turn, and stop.
Learn to differentiate between intrinsic human nature and cultural traits. Don't presume that people in a different culture are completely different from yourself. They still get hungry, tired, happy, sad, jealous, angry, loyal, fearful, loving and so on. People might be friendly, envious, talkative, or suspicious.
It is not so easy to find out what is similar throughout a culture and what varies. For example, you might think that your target people take offence easily and that you do not. However, it is probably more accurate to say that you take offence equally easy, but the causes of offence are very different and that offence is shown in different ways. That is, you are learning about your culture by contrasting it with another.
Learning a culture means dismantling your own ideas so that you:
are open to accepting explanations from people around you
don't just find what you expect to find in a culture
don't make unjustified generalizations about it
are more accepting of unexpected incidents.
Here's a common example with rural tribal people where your own ideas or stereotypes will lead you astray:
You: "Are there any schools here?
Interviewee : "No"
You: "How many people can read and write"
Interviewee: "Very few"
Your conclusion: these people are uneducated. But you'd be wrong and here's why. Your stereotype assumed that the only kind of education is literate education obtained in schools. They almost certainly have bodies of very complex knowledge and people whose job it is to safeguard it and pass it on to others. This is because every culture seeks to makes sense of its world and needs to survive.
In many cases, there will be different bodies of knowledge and different groups of knowledge-keepers. Some knowledge may be kept secret, or difficult to learn, or expressed in ways you don't expect. Much might be memorized as stories or other forms of oral literature, or learnt as a practical skill rather than a body of theory. Their language may even have special dialects for discussing some kinds of knowledge, and they will know things that you will take years or decades to learn.
When you start to explore the nature of their knowledge and how it is used, you see their viewpoint on it. In some cases, traditional agricultural knowledge has shown to promote more sustainable agricultural models that modern "scientific" agriculture.
It may also be that they believe their local knowledge is better than school learning. This especially effects medical personnel who are normally frustrated when locals prefer their traditional medicine to more effective modern treatments, or who use modern medicine as if it were part of their traditional medicine.
Here's a list of tips to start you off:
Realise that culture shock is normal; there's nothing wrong with you.
Learn your way around and basic everyday skills you need for survival. Situation shock is normally fairly easy to get over. If you get this right in the first week, it will make you far more comfortable with other aspects of culture shock.
Start learning language as soon as you can. Start simply and use it every day.
Have a support person or group
Do not compare everything to your home country, and don't compare everything to how "good " things are there.
Don't give your conclusions about your host culture to people in it; many people do not like foreigners making generalizations about their culture. Rather use those opportunities to ask questions.
Expect everybody to have their own opinions, and give them that kind of freedom. They probably won't be uniform and might not appreciate being forced into a stereotype by your questioning. Besides, you might find later on that there are cultural streams or subcultures that are very different from each other.
BIG Hint Keep a diary of your observations and things to which you had to adjust.
Assume that people have very good reasons for what they do, and that their culture actually makes sense. Try to find out those reasons. I am consistently surprised that cultures are so logical, even when I don't agree with some values.
Some people will give better answers than others and some answers might not seem to make much sense. It might be that they do make sense, but you haven't figured out why yet because you haven't gone far enough into the mindset. Some people give partial answers simply because they are speaking spontaneously and don't have time to think out their entire rationale. And of course there will always be people who simply don't know why or who deliberately give you a poor answer because they are shy or feel threatened.
There will probably be cultural aspects to asking good questions. For example, people of one culture differentiate sharply between the purpose (hidden agenda) of the question and what it is that is asked. They might not answer what you asked, but respond according to what they perceive your purpose to be. As another example, they might answer your question very well, but their idea of a reason might not seem logical to you. In that case you need to understand what kind of cultural logic they are using. If you dismiss the answer, you have dismissed an excellent learning opportunity.
Who should you ask? Some people will be recognized as knowing more than others. They might become embarrassed if you push them for an answer and they honestly don't know. It might be totally inappropriate to ask a person of the opposite sex, or of particular age groups.
How much depends on who you think they are? They might give better answers when they know you better and trust you more. If they think you are a genuine friend who want to learn, they will likely give you an honest answer. But if you say that you are writing a graduate dissertation, they can feel threatened by your role and very pressured to provide a very clever answer. They might decline, especially if they have much lesser formal education or they can manufacture a fictitious answer.
It might be that you are poorly understood or unknowingly asked an offensive question. Be aware that many people might be too polite to tell you, and you will only find out what happened after a considerable people of time.
Some questions can also frustrate people if they sound like:
Are you tall or short? (Actually, I'm about medium.)
Have you stopped beating your wife? (Whether you answer yes or no, it still means that you have been beating you wife.)
How much is a one-dollar candy? (It obviously costs a dollar, so is this a trick question? It seems like you're fishing for another answer.)
"Which color raw squid do you prefer to eat: blue or purple?" (I've never eaten raw squid, I don't want to, I don't know anything about squid colors, and I certainly have no preference for one over the other.)
In your opinion, what were the main developments in seventeenth century Italian mathematics? (What am I supposed to know about that?)
BIG Hint Keep a diary of your questions and the answers your were given, your observations, and things to which you had to adjust.
The first way is to look at your personal space (your safe environment where you feel safe and in control) as growing during cultural adaptation. This is what we did so far.
Another perspective on cultural adaptation is to see it as starting a new life. In this approach, your life is defined in terms of various areas: identity, physical, social, psycho-social*, linguistic, behavioral, emotional, and educational.
If you are going to a culture that is quite different from your own, you need help rebuilding each of these:
Identity: defining who you are
Physical: the place, your health, the food
Social: making a new network of friends, having new ways of getting support form your social group
Psycho-social: what do these people expect of me? Who should I react to them?
Linguistic: Learning a new language from scratch
Behavioral: a new system of what to do and how to do it
Emotional: Why am I feeling all these kinds of things? What should I be feeling?
Educational: "I this culture, I know less of than a first-grader." I have to relearn my education to use it in a different culture.
The most interesting aspect to this is where I got it from.
It comes from drug addiction rehab. Rehab workers help recovering addicts to rebuild their lives in most of these ways. Residents need a new location, new networks of friends, counseling, and (usually) some education to get a job. If they don't, their old social networks and behaviors will lead them back into addiction.
*"psycho-social" means how you react emotionally or psychological y to people in social relationships.