Monday, April 24, 2017

Eye-Opening Culture Shock

The longer someone lives in one culture, the more difficult it is to deal with the move to a new one. But, ironically, sometimes the people who have an even harder time with such “culture shock” are those who have gone through such a change, and adjusted to a second culture.

The long-term culture shock and adjustment involved in making a long-term or permanent change of cultures is one of the most stressful things someone can do. And sometimes going through such a change does not make a person more apt to seek out such changes, but rather makes them even more change-averse. They become even more entrenched in the adjustments they have made. They hold on tightly to the “tried and true” and are even less likely to grow in cultural adjustment beyond the level that gets them by.

The danger for cross-cultural workers is that, once we have managed to adjust our lives into say, the 10% of the culture that we need to function, we can become even more blind to the other 90%.

As someone who grew up overseas and later moved back overseas, I have experienced three major, long-term culture shock events in my life. It never gets any easier. And yet, I find the experience “eye-opening” every time I taste it. As such, my family has sought out little tastes of feeling out of place every chance we get. Our idea of a good vacation is to go somewhere we do not know the language or culture, rent an apartment where the people there live, and try to taste life in that culture. In eleven years in Europe, we have done just that on at least 6 different occasions.

I think every time it gets harder.

One of the most valuable lessons I relearn every time we do it is that we live with blinders on. “Culturally adjusted” living is mostly about staying on track, following the familiar, and not seeing the outliers. Perhaps that is why, over and over again, God asks His people to leave their comfort zones and home cultures, and set out with Him into an unknown. When we get out of our routine, we see people we normally would never notice. We discover opportunities we normally overlook.

The trick is living that way all of the time.

When we go somewhere new, we notice how different the people are. In our “residence” cultures, we think people are familiar, comfortable, or similar to us. We might think that we have adjusted to be more like the culture where we live. Perhaps, though, we have simply found the people most similar to ourselves and become blind to everyone who is not like us.

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