When we travel to a new country, culture shock is a catalyst to personal growth.
It’s the spice of life: different cultures communicating in different ways.
I get nervous each time I land in new territory. Learning how local people communicate is my first step to formulating an approach, exploring a new place.
But what makes me even more nervous is worrying about how I’ll communicate with others upon my return home. Sometimes, it feels like I have more culture shock coming back than I do while I am away.
Why is this?
I’ve just returned from a high context culture in South America.
So high context, that I think the temperature of the land itself is higher because of how connected the people are to each other.
I love traveling to high context countries because there’s a strong group mentality. Technology is not at the forefront of everyday life and family values, teamwork, direct face-to-face interaction and body language still reign as lead communication techniques (especially in places like Greece, Spain, Brazil and Italy).
In a high context culture, everyone is accepted as part of the team. The saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” is a perfect example of a high context culture’s mentality.
How else can I explain a high context culture except calling it particularly emotional? The interaction with others grounds life in a way that low context cultures haven’t seen since the birth of the smartphone.
Low context cultures include a love of technology and an individualistic approach to life. Relationships are “easy come, easy go.” Our worth is measured by our resume and past accomplishments.
Low context cultures love rulebooks and explicit directions. Communicating is indirect through technical channels and the exact meaning of words is the paramount cornerstone of communication itself (think North America, Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom, for example).
Being North American and raised in a low context culture, I’ve been conditioned to maneuver through life in a more detached way and act like a nervous cat when it comes to human contact. Think of low context culture as a Tetris game: there is order and logic, and everything has a way of falling into place.
Recently, I watched a movie where the lead actor went through the same torrent of emotions upon her return home from being part of a high context culture. One scene has her looking at her husband as if he were a stranger. She says that before she went away, she was afraid she wouldn’t blend in. Now that she has returned home, she feels the same way and doesn’t know where to start. Everyone she looks at upon her return is like a stranger because their way of communicating is, by this time, foreign to her. This transitionary type of culture shock I feel is obviously not an isolated feeling.
When we find ourselves in this tug of war and our internal compass is spinning, when we are jet lagged and overwhelmed, what can we do? Is there anything that can make this “coming back to reality” easier?
Here’s the secret: We can engage the same tools we’ve learned from the high context culture, to help us back into our real world. Here are some “re-integration tactics” that we’ve all used but sometimes need gentle reminders of how powerful they can be:
Visualize and breathe deep to bring yourself into the present, (possibly) uncomfortable reality. It’s hard to get a grip when the cultural air does a complete 180, within hours.
Be gentle with yourself. This allows you to be gentle with others. It’s okay to keep the spiritual journey going after touchdown.
Honor the lessons learned abroad, long after returning home. Ponder deeply on your experiences. Apply them in daily life.
Appreciate where you are and where life has taken you. Write a gratitude journal. It is a sure way to stay grounded and focused.
Find balance in expectations. Be flexible in thought and action.
While I was travelling, it was beautiful to experience a veritable camaraderie. An unspoken, informal, laid-back comfort among the people. Animated faces everywhere and distinct emotional tones in conversation.
And now I’m home, in a technologically driven, stone-faced, consumerist society that communicates completely the opposite, with far different priorities.
Just a few short weeks ago, I thought I could lose running water. Now, I’m drowning myself in hot water twice a day. It’s so easy to forget.
I came home kissing people on each cheek and then quickly stop myself.
Back into my shell I go.
I embrace the constant struggle within, joining all the other people out there trying to blend in, in a culture that’s completely opposite to how they’re programmed.
It’s just one more reason why my bags are always packed and I’m plotting my next departure.
Author: Amber Long
Image: Elephant Instagram
Editor: Sara Kärpänen