Some of the earliest records of human culture describe people traveling to foreign lands for trade or conquest. Today people travel in order to find work, to study or teach. They make brief trips (e.g., for vacations) or settle permanently in a country other than their own. Such travel inevitably involves personal contact between culturally dissimilar individuals, and in the case of visitors, exposure to unfamiliar physical and social settings. As anyone who has traveled will acknowledge, this can be an unsettling experience, particularly if the transition from old to new is sudden.
The journals of Captain Cook, Marco Polo, and Christopher Columbus provide very good descriptions of what will be referred to in this article as culture contact. Modern-day examples include employees of international organizations, guest workers, overseas students, tourists, immigrants, refugees, missionaries, and peacekeepers.
During the last 40 years, the migration rate across national boundaries has greatly increased. This has been fueled by mass access to air travel, the globalization of industry, education, and leisure, and natural and human-made disasters such as floods, famine, and regional conflicts.
The coining of the phrase culture shock has been attributed to the anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, who in an article in 1960 used it to describe how people react to strange or unfamiliar places. But snappy titles should be treated with caution, and the term culture shock provides a good illustration of this rule. Certainly, it captures some of the feelings and experiences of travelers. However, the use of the word shock draws excessive attention to the negative aspects of coming into contact with novel situations, ignoring the fact that such experiences may also have consequences that benefit the participants. Over the years, culture shock has become a widely used and misused term, both in popular language as well as in cross-cultural psychology.
Culture shock can best be understood by placing it conceptually within the wider process of culture contact, the term used to describe the (usually first-time) meeting of people who come from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Two types of culture contact have been distinguished: within society and between society.
Within-society cross-cultural contact is a defining characteristic of life in multicultural societies. Successful multicultural countries may contain many diverse ethnic groups, which are unified by institutional structures and values that produce a common sense of nationhood. The United States from its earliest days has exemplified such a social system. As people go about their daily lives, they will inevitably encounter others who are dissimilar to them in appearance, heritage, values, and practices. In countries which value ethnic diversity, such cross-cultural contact enriches the lives of its citizens. The opposite is the case in countries where intergroup relations are based on ethnocentric principles.
Between-society culture contacts refer to the category of individuals who go abroad for a particular purpose and for a specified period of time, and the relationships they establish with members of the host society. The term sojourner has been used to describe such culture travelers, implying that they are temporary visitors, with the intention of returning home after achieving their aims.
Most of the research on culture shock has studied between-society contact, because the sojourner experience involves a transition from familiar to unfamiliar settings that is highly focused and usually quite abrupt. For instance, prospective overseas students may leave Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia by plane in the morning, arrive in Sydney, Australia 12 hours later, and suddenly become immersed in a set of circumstances which are totally strange to them, and for which they may not have been prepared. One of the terms Oberg used was “buzzing confusion” to describe such an experience. Furthermore, most sojourners cannot realistically opt out of contact with significant host members, unlike minority groups in multicultural societies, who can effectively segregate themselves from contact with the wider society if they so wish.
The other reason why sojourners have been the center of attention is that culture shock in this area has economic consequences. It costs a lot of money to send business executives (or students) abroad, and if their performance is impaired by their inability to cope with their new environments, this has adverse consequences for the all-important financial bottom line.
Culture as Shared Meanings
The concept of culture is very slippery. For instance, in the 1950s the anthropologist C. Kluckhohn (Kroeber & Kluckhohn. 1952) reviewed 150 definitions, all somewhat different in what they denoted. In our own work on contact, we have found it useful to regard culture as a set of shared meanings that characterize a particular group, and which distinguish it from other groups. This definition is sufficiently general to cover broad, nationwide societal structures, but it can also be used to refer to subcultures within societies. It is also increasingly used to describe corporate cultures. And although the definition emphasizes cognitions, it does not rule out values and behaviors, as these too can be expressed in terms of the meaning the actor and perceiver ascribes to them. Historically, different cultures have evolved unique philosophical systems about the meaning of life and how it should be conducted. In many instances, there exist large between-culture differences, which may be diametrically opposed to each other, so that what is a virtue in one society could be offensive in another.
The Similarity-Attraction Hypothesis
Theory and empirical research in social psychology has shown that people prefer others who are similar to themselves. People can be similar in a variety of ways, all of which can have an effect on how they respond to each other. Thus, individuals are more likely to seek out, enjoy, understand, want to work and play with, trust, vote for, and marry others with whom they share important characteristics. These include interests, values, religion, group affiliation, skills, physical attributes, age, language, and most other aspects on which human beings differ.
The reason for this in-group bias is that the similarity of another person is reassuring. The social world contains many choices and alternatives. Furthermore, values often tend to be unclear and ambiguous, leading people to seek guidance as to their conduct. At one end of the spectrum people may consult traditional religious works, and at the other, books on etiquette. But a more common way is to look at how other people have responded to the problem, the technical term for this process being consensual validation. A person with similar views and practices to our own will provide support which confirms that our opinions, behaviors, and decisions, are safe, virtuous, and correct. Conversely, a dissimilar person may threaten such a self-image.
The Culture-Distance Hypothesis
It follows from the definition of culture as shared meanings that contact between culturally diverse people will inevitably occur between individuals who are dissimilar, often with respect to important, deeply felt issues. Research has shown that the greater the cultural distance separating two individuals, the more difficulty they will have in establishing mutual understanding and effective communication.
The Determinants of Culture Shock
There are a number of determinants of culture shock, including social-cognitive factors, differences in core values, and others.
Social psychologists (for instance Michael Argyle, 1994) regard interpersonal encounters as a skilled performance in which the participants engage in a reciprocal process requiring them to respond to each other’s signals and cues on a continuing basis. It is a bit like waltzing, which can either be executed smoothly or awkwardly, depending on how well the dancers coordinate their movements. In social episodes, the main vehicle for communication is spoken language. However, nonverbal aspects of communication also play a vital role, in particular gestures, turn-taking, tone of voice, posture, proximity between the communicators, and touching. These behaviors are regulated by a set of socially constructed rules and conventions, and participants who have similar backgrounds will have a better understanding of what is expected. In cross-cultural meetings, or for that matter, in contact between members of different subcultures, those involved may not share the assumptions, perceptions, or interpretations of each other’s behavior, and often may not even be aware that they are at cross-purposes. This can lead to misunderstanding, interpersonal awkwardness, confusion, uncertainty, and ultimately to hostility.
The anthropologist E. T. Hall (1966) called these nonverbal and contextual cues the hidden dimension of communication, hidden because they are generally not attended to until a rule is broken. In cross-cultural communication, they are a potential source of trouble, because they are much less accessible to the outsider, and by definition, cross-cultural contact is between outsiders. For instance, most Westerners would regard a smile as a sign of warmth, but in some cultures it may be a way of indirectly conveying disapproval. Indeed, cultural differences in direct or indirect expression of emotion constitute a major barrier to cross-cultural understanding. For example, in many cultures it is impolite to explicitly refuse a request. Uninitiated members of direct cultures do not understand that a “maybe” means “no,” and “indirect” individuals may be offended by an overt refusal, no matter how politely it is phrased.
Differences in Core Values
Culture distance in values is another major source of culture shock. Contact between members of societies diametrically opposed on core issues is fraught with difficulty. For instance, the inferior status of women in some societies attracts deep disapproval in cultures that value nondiscriminatory gender relations. On the other side of this coin, members of male-dominated societies regard the occupational and sexual freedom which women enjoy in many Western cultures as distasteful and immoral. Similar disparities in what is regarded as correct and proper can be found in many other domains, such as religion, attitudes to the natural environment, age versus youth, dietary preferences, attitudes to punctuality, respect for status, and formal versus informal forms of address.
Reducing or Preventing Culture Shock
There is very little that can be done to facilitate communication between participants who differ in core values that cannot be reconciled, other than to alert those involved that these differences exist, that each party is sincere in its beliefs, and that people should agree to differ.
Other techniques that have had modest success in preventing or reducing culture shock include selecting persons for overseas assignment on the basis of personality characteristics deemed to assist in coping with the unfamiliar, such as flexibility, self-efficacy, tolerance for ambiguity, and a nonprejudiced outlook, or racial color blindness as it is sometimes called. Predeparture briefing about salient physical, economic, and political aspects of the new setting is also useful, as are details about the customs, values, and social practices of the people, particularly with respect to any major differences between the sojourners’ and the host cultures. And because disconfirmed expectations contribute to culture shock, it is important to provide accurate information about the negative aspects of the destination.
Most culture contact situations contain a pragmatic element, in the sense that it is in the interests of both sojourners and their immediate hosts to come to some kind of accommodation. Overseas students or expatriate executives may harbor fundamental objections to some aspects of the host culture they find themselves in, but they have a job to do, and most sojourners will consciously follow practices that contribute to those aims. Likewise, host counterparts may be less than impressed with some of the foreigners they have to deal with, but will restrain themselves and make allowances, in the interests of achieving goals that require a cooperative relationship. Sojourners unable to make the necessary adjustments will find the going tough, both personally and professionally, will probably not last the distance, and become part of the minority of travelers who return early, disappointed, and hostile toward their erstwhile hosts. However, the vast majority of sojourns are successful. and contribute to international understanding, both at the personal and institutional level.
Culture shock is an inescapable consequence of culture contact, particularly when a significant distance separates the sojourners’ culture of origin and the culture of the visited country or culture. However, in most instances, culture shock can be reduced by providing culture travelers with useful predeparture information, making them aware of and sensitive to cultural differences, teaching them specific, culture-relevant social skills, and giving them systematic social support during the sojourn.
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Interpersonal Communication as a Mutually Organized, Skilled Performance
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