Not to make anyone in less sunny climes jealous but I am writing this sitting on my balcony in the glorious May Spanish sun. As I do so, I am watching the local populus go about their business and feeling truly at home in this ‘alien’ environment. I know of so many others who have made the move abroad on the back of a dream of greener grass (or just more sunshine!) only to quit and move back a couple of years later when they find their dreamland is more of a nightmare and they just don’t fit in.
One of the most common causes of this is so called ‘culture shock’. All of us are unconsciously ‘trained’ in the culture and way of thinking of the place in which we grew up. At many levels, from close family and friends up to a feeling of national identity, people in the same peer group deal with situations in a similar way and anything or anyone that is different – unfamiliar – is instinctively ‘wrong’ in our eyes.
Inevitably, therefore, we react, often negatively, to that difference, convinced our way is the right way. If we constantly encounter these situations in our target culture, this leads to the phenomenon of culture shock, where we just cannot feel at home and nothing seems to work ‘right’. Spanish bureaucracy has given me moments like that, I must admit…
If you can actually step back and realise what is happening – that the local people are adhering to the same cultural grounding – you at least start to understand why it is happening. That first, key step can allow you to start dealing with it. While you may still find certain aspects inefficient or even plain silly, you will also realise that people are acting in the same, in-grained way as you, and not just being rude, unnecessarily polite or whatever.
That itself can be a major breakthrough as you can start to understand the way people think instead of reacting to their behaviour. In my experience this often leads to a realisation that not only is this behaviour not deliberately antipathetic (in most cases anyway!) but actually, is an interesting alternative perspective – perhaps even a better way of looking at and dealing with situations. And if you can actually learn to behave in a similar way, at least when interacting with your local hosts, you will inevitably blend in better.
As with all communication, of course, this empathy is what improves our relationships with others. If we can learn to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and in this case look beyond the individual to the cultural environment – social, political, historical, etc – in which we are now a guest, we will be accepted more and gain a new insight into our target culture. The rewards, apart from avoiding or reducing culture shock, are – trust me! – immensely rewarding.