by William A. Smalley
Culture shock has been described as that emotional disturbance which results from adjustment to new cultural, environment.’ Its cause is the loss of the familiar cues by which we interact in any society.
Culture shock has been described as that emotional disturbance which results from adjustment to new cultural, environment.’ Its cause is the loss of the familiar cues by which we interact in any society. Every culture has thousands of subtle signs of which we are usually not even conscious, by which we know our place in relation to people around us and know how to evaluate what they say and do. The loss of these cues when we enter a new culture means strain, uneasiness, and even emotional maladjustment because the props have been swept away from under us and we no longer have a familiar foundation on which to stand. Until we learn the cues of the new culture we are culturally disoriented. Language problems lie at the core of much culture shock, and the very task of language learning carries its perils. It is however, in the shock of self-discovery that there comes the possibility of healing from culture shock.
When I first went Paris to study French, I and many other Americans like me found it difficult to know when and where to shake hands. French people seemed to us to be shaking hands all the time, and very unnecessarily so from our point of view. We felt silly shaking our hands so much, and we passed around among its the stories that we heard such as one about how French children shake hands with their parents before going to bed every night. These stories emphasized the "queerness" of such French customs. This small and inconsequential difference of habit in shaking hands was enough to bring uneasiness, and combined with hundreds of other uncertainties brought culture shock to many.
In many parts of the Far East, where people are socially graded to a greater extent than Americans are, languages reflect social strata to the point where a speaker must know the relative position that he bears to the person with whom he is talking in order to address him properly. Members of the culture early learn the signs by which differences of status are shown, and early learn to reflect this knowledge in patterns of speech. For the foreigner who is learning the language these cues are not obvious. It takes him months and even years to learn them and in the meantime he may suffer the strain of never knowing quite how to speak to strangers, much as he wants to do the right thing.
Americans, furthermore, often find it very hard to adjust to the fact that they are automatically identified with a much higher class of society in many countries of Asia and Africa than they enjoyed at home. This may present problems of knowing how to behave, but most of all it leaves the missionary with a bitter tension between his Christian feeling for the importance of an identification with the down and out who comprise the great bulk of local population, and the impossibility of anyone taking such an identification seriously.
Hundreds of Americans have been caught by the difference of meaning attached to a wave of the hand in some parts of the world. My wife and I were looking out of our window in Vietnam when we saw a lady whom we had met pass by the house. My wife waved to her in friendly greeting and the lady immediately came to the door and into the house. She knew no English and we knew no Vietnamese. On both sides we stood there awkwardly grinning at each other. What we had meant as a friendly wave to her meant, "Come over here." Certainly no harm was done by this friendly gesture but it was a bit uncomfortable just standing there grinning while we wondered what to do next! This uncomfortableness multiplied a thousand times may well produce culture shock.
The proper relationship to servants is a repeated cause of culture shock among missionaries. They want to be kind and Christian, and to reflect this kindness and Christianity in the equalitarian way Americans interpret Christianity for social relationships, yet this conflicts with the local understanding of the position of a servant in a house, and with what theservant finds comfortable. One missionary family in Congo suffered deeply from culture shock which centered primarily around relationships with their servants. They wanted their servants to be a part of their household in an American equalitarian sense. They wanted to bring them in as friends, to invite them to table, but this was not permitted by customs nor convention. They couldn’t stand having these people in the house, and not treating them as guests. On the other hand, for many Americans with their heavily built protective wall of personal privacy, the presence of servants in the homes means an invasion of privacy. They react to it emotionally as an intrusion. They feel exposed.
The problem of when to accept and when to refuse has been a frequent cause of emotional disturbance. In many societies people do not accept an offer the first time it is made, but they and the person who made the offer both judge by subtle cues of facial expression, gesture, and intonations, just how seriously the offer was intended in the first place, and just how seriously the rejection should be taken as well. In time a proper acceptance or refusal is made after the appropriate protestations. People know by the cues when this is final. A friend of mine, an American missionary studying in a language school, stopped to invite one of his teachers to ride along in his car as he was driving to school one morning. She refused and my friend rode on only to find out later that the teacher was furious that he had left her standing there at the side of the road.
The culture shock which comes to non-Caucasian overseas Americans may be particularly acute. Negroes going to Africa and people of the Mongolian race going to East Asia feel a sense of identification with the people of the area in which they are serving. They soon find, however, that their American cultural characteristics are the important fact to local people, who do not identify with them on the basis of skin color at all. One Negro missionary in Africa was offered singed caterpillars to eat as part of the meal in the home where he was visiting. When he did not eat them the lady of the house picked up the dish and carried it off muttering under her breath, "White man!" In the light of the history of Negro-white relations in the United States you can imagine what a shock that was!
The fear of failure in participation in native life is another cause of culture shock. We know that we cannot do well in the strange moves of the Chinese version of chess prevalent in the Far East. When we try our hand at crafts or any of the occupations which take the largest share of local people’s time we are slow and awkward. Our work is comparable to that of children. If we are of strongly pietistic bent, we are afraid of compromising our morals by participation, seeing dangerous religious significance in every pastime.
SYMPTOMS OF CULTURE SHOCK
One of the principal ways in which culture shock shows up is rejection. It may be rejection of the host country and its people, with the endless complaining, carping, fault-finding which is characteristic of some groups of Americans overseas. Nothing seems to be going right, and all reactions are tinged with bitterness. Rejection of the host country leads to the development of a protective personal isolationism, and is the ground on which the "Little America" communities transplanted overseas thrive.
The rejection on the other hand may be directed against the home country. This produces the person who "goes native" in the bad sense. Now the complaint and criticism may be directed against the home country and its policies, fellow Americans abroad, and all cultural importations from the home country. In this group are the Left Bank expatriates of Paris and similar people in Latin America and Asia. Their moral restraints are broken. They live a life of imitation and emotional dependence on their host country. These people arevery different from the well-adjusted Americans overseas who adapt their lives sensibly to local patterns as far as is practical, who feel a creative sense of identification but who have not lost objectivity in the selection of the life which they are to follow. Their adaptation is not based on a pathological rejection of their past but on a wholesome selection of what is valuable, from all of the cultural streams with which they come into contact.
Rejection may also be directed in a particular way against the mission board, the field executive committee, the colleague, who put the newcomer in this intolerable situation. Bitter feel ing about real or imagined injustice begins to arise. Field policies are bitterly attacked. Personal failures are blamed on a lack of proper orientation, on the fact that nobody had warned him that it would be like this, that nobody had protected him from this suffering. If the person suffering from culture shock feels a sense of identification with the host country, he may lash out bitterly against the mission and his colleagues when he sees a lack of such identification in them. He projects the hostility arising out of culture shock against the symbols of authority over him.
Rejection of the mission board and of missionary colleagues is often related to the shock which comes very forcibly to many missionaries when they find that with the development of "indigenized" churches no new role for the foreign missionary has yet been established. He doesn’t know what be is supposed to do, or what he does does not fit his image of himself, or his understanding of this calling. This can be a bitter and frustrating experience indeed.
Or the rejection may turn against himself. The person suffering from culture shock may feel that he is a failure, that be had no business coming overseas in the first place, that he cannot possibly make good. He feels that all the money spent on him – his training, his outfit, and his transportation – has been wasted. He blames himself for every mistake and feels utterly defeated when he is not an instantaneous success in evervthing that he tries. His problem may be compounded by the fact that he feels guilty about feelings of rejection and hostility in any direction.
The rejection may even be focused upon God. It was God who called him into missionary work and sent him to this place. God is to blame for making such a terrible mistake.
Homesickness is often another major symptom of culture shock. It sometimes takes the first furlough to get over this homesickness and to put things back into normal perspective. The tourist bravado by which the traveler plays up the superiority of things at home is an example of the effect of culture shock. After having observed tourists in Europe, I used to think that tourist bravado was a particularly American characteristic, until one time I was traveling on an Air France plane with a lurk group of French tourists returning from the United States to Europe. Their behavior was astonishingly like that of American tourists in Europe. Neither group behaves like this at home, but the displacement and the ensuing culture shock takes its toll.
Symbols of home assume enormous proportions to the person suffering from culture shock. An American flag on the tail of an airplane flying over a remote interior community may send a thrill up and down the spine of an American resident in a way that it never would in his own country, or anywhere else, if he were not identifying it with home under an extreme sense of displacement and insecurity.
One person suffered through a whole missionary term craving ice cream sodas and declaring that once she returned to the States she would eat ice cream sodas every day. When she got home on furlough she didn’t particularly want them. She didn’t need them because she had what she was really craving, bey home and familiar environment.
Soon after the war I was living in aFrench boarding house which did not serve very good food. At a time when I was extra low emotionally and physically because of an attack of dysentery, we received a CARE package with a chicken dinner in it. Nothing ever tasted so good to me in all of my life. The food was canned and certainly nothing exceptional, but it was familiar and symbolized the world I understood. Another important symptom of culture shock is often an excessive concern over germs and illness. Some people become compulsive handwashers. One missionary lady insists that everyone who comes into her house should take off his shoes and wash his feet in lysol solution before entering.
Some people refuse to eat food offered to them for fear of the germs they might ingest. Nobody can live normally in a society and refuse to eat with people in that society. A missionary cannot live by the medical books when he is out visiting in the countryside. Illness is one of the risks that is involved, a very real possibility, but the person suffering from culture shock becomes deeply disturbed over germs and illness, disturbed far beyond the actual physical danger.
Culture shock can be seen in the insistence on American doctors and American hospitals by Americans overseas. Even in Europe with its advanced medical standards, Americans will go hundreds of miles to an American hospital. Americans will sometimes put off needed dental or medical attention for months or years because the local doctor is not an American, or American-trained.
Culture shock is particularly manifest in the attitude of Americans toward their children’s well-being and education. Rare is the American who will put his children in local schools. When pressure comes (as it must inevitably come in many areas) on schools for missionaries’ children to accept students from the local community, missionary parents are often very frightened of the step. They see all kinds of dire consequences to the standards of the school and to the morals of their children. More than one missionary parent suffering from culture shock has moved into the "Little America" community so that his children will not have to play with "native" kids.
SHOCK AND RECOVERY
Oberg mentions several stages through which many overseas Americans go. The first stage is that of fascination, where newcomers have no real contact with the country into which they have moved because friends or colleagues or hotel employees stand as buffers between them and its problems. They can communicate through their protective buffers and the world around them caters to their foreign ways.
But as they take on permanent residence and come in daily contact with local ways of doing things and run into various living problems with servants, transportation, water, telephone, and everything else that they have always taken for granted, then hostility begins to emerge. The problems which they face are to them symbols of the inferiority of the land around them. The fact that local people are indifferent to these problems is proof of this inferiority, proof of laziness, proof that such people can never get ahead. They scold everyone within hearing.
Thousands of overseas Americans retreat into their "Little Americas," import instant rice to the Far East and American Nescafe to the coffee-growing countries of the world, and become utterly obnoxious to their hosts.
Eventually to some comes a beginning of a sense of humor, a lessening of a tension, and the ability to see the funny side of it all. With this of course begins healing and although mane strains may remain, recovery is very likely. Once the problems begin to seem funny they are never so overwhelming.
Finally in biculturalism, in a degree of understanding of the new society such that the individual can begin to react in appropriate ways, real victory is obtained. As the new cues are learned and the new signs of what is the right thing to do arc assimilated,often unconsciously, and as language becomes a strong foundation for the new resident’s repertoire of communications media, the bases of tension and hysteria are little be little removed.
Language shock is one of the basic ingredients of culture shock. Because language is the most important communications medium in any human society, it is the area where the largest number of the cues to interpersonal relationships lie. As the newcomer comes into a whole new world, where he knows no language at all, he is stripped of his primary means of interacting with other people, he is subject to constant mistakes, he is placed on the level of a child again. Even after weeks of study lie is unable to discuss much more than the price of a pound of potatoes. He is unable to display his education and intelligence, the symbols which give him status and security back home. He meets intelligent and educated people, but he responds to them like a child or an idiot because he is not capable of any better response.
The very exercise of language study itself gives some people acute culture shock. Many people have a mental block against practicing something they do not understand. But they can never understand until they have practiced it enough so that they are familiar with it. They find themselves in a vicious circle-unable to learn, unable to get along without learning. They cling to the crutch of translation and desperately try to find out how to translate the things they want to say from English into the local language, and they let this substitute for a knowledge of the language, fooling themselves into thinking that because they have learned how to make the equivalents of some English statements (even "preaching" full sermons), they know the language. Through this process they have missed whole portions of it, having cut these off by their insistence upon approaching it through English. And the portions the r have missed are ever-present sources of anxiety as they miss much of what is going on around them.
The language learner has the uneasy feeling that people are laughing behind his back-and they are. His study is tiring. boring, frustrating. Nothing seems to go logically or smoothy, because logic is identified with familiar ways of talking anti thinking. It is based on his language and academic tradition.
Many an overseas American who started out to learn a language has ended by rejecting it. The pattern of rejection sometimes means less and less study, the development of more and more English contacts. Sometimes it means illness, genuine physical illness. It may mean animosity against teachers, bitterness against the people who make you stick to your book.,. People with a little bit of linguistic background will use this as a weapon against the study program in which they are engaged. Because they do not find all of the techniques employed that they have learned to be useful, they blame their study situation for their failure to learn. Others around them are learning under the same conditions, but they blame their own failure on the antiquated study system they are following. Some people turn to errand running and do administration, to busy work to make them feel that their time is too full to be spent in language study. Some people are constantly making trips, constantly off on one pretext or another, and never learn.
One American missionary wife not only refused to learn a language but also refused to allow it to be used in the home by her servants (who knew some English) or by her husband, who did make some attempt to use it. Whenever she had servants whose names did not sound like English she changed them to names like "Pete" and "Sue."
SHOCK OF SELF-DISCOVERY
The shock of self-discovery is sometimes a large part of culture shock, but when it is it can be the beginning of healing.
The person in culture shock who does not discover himself is less likely to beable to see other things rationally because of his suffering.
Sometimes the self-discovery comes in the frank facing of utter defeat. The high school principal, the educator so highly respected in his own home community, the minister from a large and influential church, the Ph.D., the doctor who gave up a good practice, the minister called to evangelize and sent off in a blaze of glory from his home church, all of these people may find the props taken out from under them when they arrive in another country. In language school the slip of a girl just out of Bible college without even a respectable bachelor’s degree may be doing better in language study. Or worse vet the wife who always laughed at herself depreciatingly because she was so scatterbrained, and only did average work in college because she enjoyed the social life too much, finds learning the local language a lark, while her husband slogs along feeling utterly humiliated. The long habit of success is broken by failure.
For such a person the shock of self-discovery may be hard to take. There are differences in aptitude and people who have risen to high positions back home may not necessarily do well in language study. But everyone can learn. And with the shock of self-discovery can come the determination to do one’s best in spite of the difficulties, to study hard, to learn well, to refuse to give in to the symptoms of culture shock but to conquer them by developing a degree of bilingualism and biculturalism as fast as possible, even if the pace is slower than he would like. Sometimes the person suffering from culture shock discovers his own emotional insecurity. He finds himself behaving childishly over traffic patterns, giving vent to temper tantrums over bugs or dirt, projecting his problems upon others, and as he discovers himself he can learn to approach his problem more rationally, to attack his difficulties more systematically, and to resume a healthy outlook on his situation.
Some of the emotional bases for language and culture shock run very deep. The person who gags when trying to make certain sounds in a new language is certainly suffering from emotional disturbance which runs back into childhood, and present difficulties are only triggering much more deep-seated problems. The person who strains and contorts her face in order to round her lips, puckering them far vowel articulation, and continues to do this after weeks of coaching and help, needs psychiatric help before language study can do much good.
Because some of these problems are deep-seated and because we don’t like to face ourselves, some people never discover themselves in culture shock. A second generation missionary spoke Spanish fluently as a young person but "forgot" it when he returned to the States to high school. When he returned to Latin America as a missionary and entered language school again, he murdered Spanish. Once in a while when he wasn’t aware of it you would hear him talking perfect Spanish and then lapsing into atrocious Spanish once more. Spanish had been rejected in his high school days because it was "queer" in an American setting. It was still being rejected and he hadn’t discovered himself yet.
Signs of culture shock have been evident in students working in some of the language orientation institutes with which I have been connected in the United States. At these schools missionaries are given intensive preparation for learning a language in the field. As they come to the institute their usual props are removed. Everyone, Ph.D. and Bible college graduate, is on the same level, beginning a new and intensive study. There is very little intellectual content in the study. The work is largely a matter of drilling, a matter of learning flexibility of the speech apparatus, a habit of mimicry, a sharpness of hearing. Our educational system is geared to gaining information and not practicing skills. In this unfamiliar setting some people begin to suffer from language shock. An uneasiness settles over them at the indefiniteness of it all. There seems to be nothing that is either right or wrong, their production is either just better or worse, and somehow it always seems to be worse. Theologians who would much rather discuss the philosophy of language find that they aren’t able to articulate the vowels they are expected to make. Teachers tend to criticize the pedagogical approach taken at the institute when they find they can’t move the back of their tongue the way other people can. Doctors turn upon themselves in doubt of their missionarv call when they find so much trouble distinguishing one pitch from another.
For many such missionary appointees to whom the shock comes this is a time of self-discovery, a time when they learn rationally and realistically what problems they are going to face in language learning and how to attack these problems.
For many it is a time of renewed commitment to Christ. The realities of the difficulty of cross-cultural communication come upon them strongly, but in a more realistic way than ever before they are determined to continue with their task in obedience to Christ.
This, after all, is the meaning of biblical self-denial. It involves a conversion, a discovery of one’s self and a change in that self. Instead of the symptoms of rejection and insecurity comes an objective knowledge of strengths and weaknesses, and with the knowledge comes a relaxed acceptance of one’s self, a determination to do one’s best without pretense. With it comes the basis for bilingualism and biculturalism without pain and without emotional suffering, although not without long hard work.
1. 1 am indebted to Kalervo Obert, "Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments," Practical Anthropology, Vol. 7, Nn. 4 (July-August 1960), pp. 177-182, for many of the suggestions concerning causes and symptoms of culture shock which a mentioned in this paper. The examples are my own, as are the implications for the missionary language learner. Another good discussion of the phenomenon of culture shock is to be found in The Overseas Americans, by Harlan Cleveland Gerard J. Mangone and John Clarke Adams (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1960), renewed in Practical Anthropology, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 45 -48.
Reprinted by permission from Practical Anthropology (Box 307, Tarrytown, N.Y. 10592), V.I. 10, No. 2 (1963), pp. 9956.