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On Culture and Shock

Like many as a result of this pandemic, I have embarked on a bit of a career pivot. I moved from Spain to Scotland somewhat suddenly last summer/fall and have been studying hard since October to earn a master’s degree. 

There’s plenty to say about it but I’ll skip to the content for this post:

I am currently taking a class on International and Comparative Education. It’s an elective and the one I chose just for personal reasons (the others were meant to be more career-plans-driven) Through the class I have a chance to analyze a backlog of travelers shock – what I’m calling the plural of culture shock + the feelings of becoming somewhat misfit back in your ‘own’ culture.

This week we discussed Hofstede and for the first time in many months, I was compelled to write this blog post — possibly because having this toolkit to evaluate my experiences over the past 13 years in my global frolicking would have been handy. 

I did come across him before, in an episode of the Freakanomics podcast, and had made a mental note to follow up on it but let it pass for too long — so I was glad to see it brought up again in my class this week. 

I’ll start with a rough outline. I’m not an expert so please feel free correct me via the comments if you find errors/disagree with my interpretations/examples/opinions.

Hofstede maps countries on scales concerning six dimensions:

  1. Power distance
  2. Invidualism/collectivism
  3. Femininity/masculinity – I’m less keen on this one
  4. Uncertainty avoidance
  5. Long-term/short-term orientation
  6. Indulgence/restraint

Power distance: the amount of inequality allowable between people with more/less power/pretige – think parent and child, boss and employee – in some cultures, children are given more leeway or invited to participate in family decision making, in some (sometimes company) cultures hierarchies determine who you can conversate/lunch with and how you might approach meeting with them (would you look them in the eyes, stand near/far away, hug/cry it out together?)

Individualism: focus on caring for the self and close friends/family first and foremost

Collectivism: focus on maintaining social cohesion, loyalty – even at the expense of own self interest

Femininity/masculinity – let’s eliminate this one, it’s outdated! Side note: I do like the use of a scale for sexuality (over polarities), but this is more of a labeling of things as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ which I think is… irrelivant/a can of worms to flesh out. And this is my blog post. I am queen.

Uncertainty Avoidance (UA): put in my own very simple terms- comfort being uncomfortable. Low UA would mean an aptitude for tolerating risk (maybe consider your own experience with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic), while high UA would mean discomfort without structure, rituals, rules, and routines.

Sidenote: I often refer to ‘comfort’ in both the physical and emotional sense when describing Americans vs Europeans – I sometimes feel Americans confuse comfort (both types) with quality of life. What I mean is, through traveling, I’ve increasingly valued feeling uncomfortable as it generally indicates that I am learning/changing through experiencing something new. That being said, social/economic/political stability isn’t something to take for granted!

Long/short-term orientation: Do you long for job security or get a rush from freelancing? Long-term orientation reminds us to save for retirement, find secure housing, go steady in our relationship, while short-term orientation expresses itself through living in the moment (YOLO!), it’s as exciting as it is short-sighted (and you might say that’s a good thing).

Indulgence/Restraint: Treat yourself! Savor life, have cake with your coffee, sleep in until noon on a Saturday – or better yet a Thursday! Move in ways that feel good. Stretch. Sing. Dance. Do something silly. Lounge around, experiment, create art. Everything I’ve mentioned here would be classified as ‘indulgence’ – although I’ll argue much of it is vital. That’s probably the American in me speaking (the USA falls at 68/100 for indulgence). Restraint comes with a more austere perspective – less is more, use less, behave yourself – it has its time and place.

(Limited mention of) the Limitations

No theory has it all right. That is an understatement! People change, cultures change, everything, always, is moving and shaping, reshaping… but having some guidelines from which to relate average societal behaviors (not directly reflective of the plethora of sub-cultures and dynamic complexity of ever-changing individuals within a ‘society’- as defined by country boundaries) and beliefs is a wonderfully practical (yet overly simplistic) idea. (so don’t take any of this too seriously)

Think about your own country (or countries, or someplace you have visited/hope to visit/are curious about) – how do you think it (they) would rate in terms of power distance, individualism, uncertainty, time orientation, and indulgence? Check your guess here

Now use the function to compare countries

Proof that I was once in Spain (in case you are new to my blog)

I’ll use the US and Spain since I’ve recently lived in each for substantial periods of my life – a mismatch in an element may tie to a point which causes ‘culture shock’

Spain is split between individual/collective (I’d call it community-oriented) and I come from the hyper-individualistic USA. I had to adjust to the emphasis on meeting and working in groups and might have been put off if someone avoided one-on-one conversation with me, but these could be explained culturally through Hofstede’s dimensionality.

I’ve recently moved to the UK. In many ways, it feels comparable to the USA. A look at the scales confirms relatability in most dimensions. But there’s a discrepancy in time orientation. I have been noticing the plethora of retirement, life insurance, and burial service adverts directed at individuals on British TV. Perhaps this indicates the reason behind my curiosity.

What’s missing?

So the scales offer insight, make for a nice time toying around with various matches… but they’re not without consequence. Of course culture is much more complex than the country-wide average. Distilling experience into six tidy categories is limiting. What about proximity? In Spain, people sit close together and kiss on the cheek. In the UK that doesn’t really fly. How about relationships with nature? In Scotland, I’m reminded of the power of harsh weather in reminding people of their place within the environment – something that reminds me of growing up in Montana. In California, I was beyond happy to experience air conditioning and the feeling of a somewhat decadent separation from nature which it facilitates.

What all of this means to me

I am both proud and ashamed that I’ve visited over 40 countries over the past 13 years (I am also doubting that figure but had to count once for a visa application and am not willing to indulge the time now, I am pretty sure it’s right). Proud because seeing the world is what I always dreamt of doing – and ashamed because that took a lot of resources, from time to gasoline, and much of it was spent in my own self-interest- on consuming foods, art, architecture, to an end which I haven’t quite identified yet (or reached)? It feels a little excessive I guess.

I hate the pandemic. I hate the lives lost, the loved ones stuck apart, the exhaustion and turmoil to front line workers, the profiting of monster companies like Amazon, and the way that everything now requires filling out online forms and booking in advance. Yet it feels therapeutic to have been forced to stop. I do encourage people to go and explore the places which seem most opposite from what they ‘know’ for themselves (once it’s safe) – there’s a tremendous gift in doing so and I’d be a hyprocite not to recommend it. But I also caution against overdoing it. The pandemic taught me that I don’t want to be a travel blogger. Maybe that’s because I doubt I would ‘make it’ in a crowd of eager influencers. But I think it’s because I’ve been filled up with all of the richness of relationships, natural and created beauty, political passion, and wisdom of others and other places that I can handle for now. This framework gives me a means to acknowledge and address my memories of wonder and discomfort that have piled up for years.

And now I am inclined to do something with it. This is my work in progress.

Thank you for reading.

By Grace in the World

I hope that the experiences I record here could be of some use to those looking to travel and I welcome questions/comments/feedback. Thank you for reading my words. Bon voyage!

2 replies on “On Culture and Shock”

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