May 25, 2020

53. Culture Shock

There can be little doubt that we are living in extraordinary times; times that none of us would have predicted at the start of the year. Back in January we here in Australia were consumed by drought, bushfires and then floods! So today Grego and Pricey want to break open culture shock.

What is culture shock?

Culture shock is when you are in a situation, in an environment and a whole series of stimuli are ‘new or foreign’ to you – and your psyche struggles to find balance and make sense of it all. When this happens we can at times ‘freeze’ or over react out of the ordinary; this is culture shock. In our normal day to day – we can manage something different – because our psyche energy does not have to work on the other things around us.

For example when Pricey is facilitating a day with a group of professionals and someone throws him a curveball question – he can handle it easily if he has his process worked out, has done his homework, knows the audience and knows his material etc – his psyche energy has only got to handle that particular question.

Whereas if the photocopier has jammed just before the presentation and Pricey has not got his handouts ready, the Data Projector bulb has gone, some of the audience are caught up in a traffic jam and may walk in half way through the presentation, you have a stomach upset from something you ate that morning, the person introducing you got the topic confused and the person asking the question has clashed with you before – you may not be as balanced in how you handle it.

Our psyche energy can handle one or two or three things ‘out of the ordinary’ or ‘different’. A good analogy is the juggler – one ball in the air – all good – two – no worries – three – ok, have to concentrate – four – struggling – five or six – no way – too much and we drop the balls. Culture shock can be that fourth or fifth ball that is thrown to you from left field.

Culture Shock is Normal

Culture shock is NORMAL. It is simply the psyche trying to protect you. It is simply your inner self attempting to handle the situation that is presented to you. We get our safety often from predictability. So much of our lives is predictable – and that can be good. We don’t have to worry because we know that the 7.53 am train is almost always on time – we will get to work on time. We don’t have to worry about so many things – because they are part and parcel of the fabric of our everyday.

But when we are thrown into a totally foreign situation – our psyche has to work overtime to cope, to find balance, to operate well – to not go into stress.

Pricey has often taken groups of students for Immersion experiences to Africa and East Timor. Almost always in those experiences there are degrees of culture shock as young anglo-saxon English only speaking Australians from middle class families find themselves in totally foreign situations. Like the analogy of juggling; some students struggle as the food is foreign, the language foreign, the sleeping conditions, the daily routine, the climate all of these and more can be totally foreign to them and hence take up psychic energy to engage with. While some will react to this in a positive way seeing it all as an adventure – others will go into shock.

Some examples of Culture Shock

Grego recalls moving to the UK, to Canada and to Hong Kong to live for a time. He had to engage with new work patterns, new ways of talking, new daily rhythms and norms. All of this was coupled with great uncertainty in work and many of the daily tasks that were second nature back in Australia had to be learned anew; how to do banking, where to eat, how to navigate around a strange city. He balanced all of this by journaling, connecting with loved one and keeping daily rituals and rhythms.

Pricey recalls travelling with students in Kenya and Tanzania. The food is very different to home, in Tanzania almost no English is spoken so even the simplest verbal task is difficult. Seeking directions, asking for the simplest help can be difficult. Travelling on Indian trains for example – if you are on a third class train often the toilet is simply a hole in the floor. In India the food can be so different and your stomach is not used to the particular types of food and sometimes you get the local version of “Delhi Belly!” Even simple things like how do you shake hands, how does a man communicate with a woman in that culture – all of these can be so different.

When the student or the person in these situations has too many elements to cope with, they can struggle. The classic situation of Culture Shock is in the movie ‘Marigold Hotel’ based on a hotel in India and a group of six or seven wealthy English people who come to live there. One of the wives (Jean Ainslie) is totally frozen in the Indian culture – she hates the food, hates the smells, hates the lack of the creature comforts from back at home etc. She totally freezes – and through the lens of culture shock – everything in India is bad. The others in the group – all in their own various ways – thrive on being in this different culture.

So what do we know about Culture Shock

  1. Firstly every person will experience it in their own way, there is no one size fits all. Some won’t ever experience it – there is something in their personality that thrives on the adventure of difference.
  2. Culture shock is a normal response to feeling ‘out of your depth’ – especially when the stimuli is quite foreign and you don’t have inner tapes to recognise how to handle a particular stimulus.
  3. Some personalities will hardly experience any culture shock or they will handle it really well. Some personalities actually thrive in situations of difference.
  4. What ‘freezes’ one person will excite another. 
  5. It manifests in totally different ways; some freeze, some withdraw, some go into depression, some over exaggerate, some over react to the simplest of things, some can’t stop talking, some binge drink or eat, some are super critical, some become quite paranoid and more.
  6. There is no doubt that we, individually and collectively are presently in a situation of potential Culture Shock – the world as we knew it has changed dramatically over recent months. The levels of depression have risen dramatically, stress in relationships is in some cases rising, some are stuck in confusion or just simply stuck. On the other hand some are finding that the Coronavirus situation has led to new creativity and new ways of connecting with family and friends – some are finding they have more time and some are getting into really good patterns of exercise.

So what do we do?

  • What Pricey does when in a foreign culture is that he deliberately works to take some of the ‘balls out of the air’ – he has been thrown six balls of difference – he knows he can only handle four – so he works to re-create some normality for himself. Eg. Pricey loves to begin the day with a cup of Coffee. So recently while in Italy – in a monastery up in the hills near Rome Pricey was experiencing a degree of culture shock – so he re-established the pattern of his early mornings back in Australia. Back at home he would rise about 5.20 am – shave etc – then make himself a cup of coffee before his morning meditation. 
  • So – he re-established that same pattern over in Italy – it took a couple of days to find a coffee relatively close to what he had at home – but he managed it (they only had machines with small plastic cups). By doing this – Pricey began his day in a ‘normal’ way – this helped him cope with the other four balls that were being thrown to him each day.
  • Back at home Pricey loves to have a beer just before dinner. In Italy he was with a group of 14 in his Sabbatical group – so after a couple of days – he began “Beer O’Clock” at 7 pm just before the 7.30 pm supper time. Of the 9 men in his group he slowly got them all to come except one. The Holy Sisters did not seem to feel they could join the group despite many invitations. But it meant that every night at 7 pm Pricey was sitting there beer in hand.
  • Reframe as adventure – see the positives in difference. In U Man we often talk about reframing. Reframing is when we have labelled something as ‘negative’ or a problem etc and we deliberately change how we look at it. For example when Pricey was working with students in Kenya he was annoyed that the men in the local group of students hosting us – seemed to take over the facilitation of the group work and the processes when they had not done the hard ground work – they waited until the women had done the hard work and then parachuted in and took over the facilitation. This really annoyed Pricey. But when he noticed it – he deliberately began to engage one on one with the female leaders thanking them for their efforts and complimenting them on their gifts. He did not try to change what the men were doing – after all it was in their culture – but rather than let that distract and annoy him – Pricey used the energy of being annoyed to affirm the women.
  • One time in Kenya and Tanzania – there was an Australian girl who was really struggling with culture shock – and her boyfriend on the same Immersion – dived deep into learning the local language and was doing really well at it – he saw it as an adventure. When he became aware that his partner was really struggling – he began teaching her the language – making it into a game – and engaged WITH her with the local people using that language – by doing this – it changed the young woman’s mindset and she slowly got over her culture shock.
  • Reframing could be simply changing your language – changing your mindset – looking for the positive – finding the challenge within the situation and twisting it.
  • Be outward looking. Often when we are in culture shock – we tend to be trapped in our own fears – and withdraw into selfishness, into us – them, into a siege mentality. But when we change our approach – and deliberately become outward looking – things change, the energy changes.
  • We have all read or heard of the Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference. 

  • That could be a great way to engage with culture shock. What is in your circle of influence – you are not powerless.
  • Linked to many of the elements named above would be rhythm and pattern. Establish a rhythm and a pattern to your day – your psyche then has less work to do and thus more energy for the difference. For example – during Pricey’s recent Sabbatical in Italy he was struggling that the priests at the place where he was were expecting them to work for six and a half days each week. What was happening was that the Saturday morning was taken up with group work reflecting on the week and often the Sunday was an excursion to some place of interest – like Monte Cassino. Now Pricey is an introvert – so for him the Sunday excursion (which others loved) was ‘work’. Pricey needs his day each week when he just pots around and does nothing much; perhaps does his laundry, cleans his room etc. Pricey was aware he was struggling – so he did some small things so that from a psyche point of view he felt like he was on a weekend; he did not shave, he introduced a longer ‘beer o’clock’ on the Saturday and then on the Sunday – when the rest of the group were totally engaged in some Church and works of art – he found himself a coffee shop and went on line and caught up with news from home – his way of turning it into a ‘weekend’ feel. He also asked the organisers to reconsider their approach to the rhythm of the week – with ‘some’ success.

Present Situation

  1. So here we are in a time of crisis. 
  2. None of us have ever been in this situation before. We can be frozen. We can panic. We can get depressed – we can feel powerless.
  3. Acknowledge your feelings – feelings are just feelings – neither good nor bad. It is what we do with them that matters.
  4. Deliberately sit down – perhaps with your partner or close friend – and plan your response.
  5. Establish a rhythm. Fill it with things that are what you like / want and predictable. For example – Pricey, when this podcast first went live was in quarantine. So even though he was not going anywhere he still got up each day, shaved and established as much ritual and rhythm as he could – even to having that beer just before dinner.
  6. On the ‘weekends’ of his quarantine time – Pricey just did some things differently again – ‘as if it were the weekend’ and he was not trapped inside – so that he ‘felt like he was on a weekend’.
  7. Establish some simple rituals that give your life meaning – and where possible do them with the ones you love. Friday night BBQ and ‘remember the time story sharing’ etc.
  8. Deliberately reach out to people you may not have reached out to.
  9. Do virtual coffee or beers with a friend.
  10. Identify where you are not coping and plan simple, doable, positive ways to engage with that energy!

Stay legendary

Grego and Pricey