by Alexander Bolyanatz
In this article we are concerned with that fundamental problem of the first few weeks in the new culture: culture confusion.
It was our third morning in Marakum village. In our bush house, my wife Pam and I were breakfasting on hot rice and milk, a favorite of mine. Our banter was lighthearted as we reviewed our first impressions of life among the Siroi on Papua New Guinea’s Rai Coast. Then he walked up the ladder, through the doorway, and sat down. Our moods changed completely. Although he smiled, we were afraid; although he required nothing of us, we were anxious; and although he asked nothing, we felt ignorant. Why has he come? Does he want something? Should we offer him something to eat? If we offer him some, should we invite his whole family as well? Will we then be obligated to have each household in the village as breakfast guests? What is the proper behavior for us in this situation?
PREDICTABILITY AND CULTURAL CONFUSION
Culture shock has been described as "an occupational disease of people who have been suddenly transplanted abroad") Oberg 1960:177). Since then, other authors (Smalley 1963, S. F. Dye 1974, T. W. Dye 1974, Mayers 1974:185-191, and Coots 1976) have investigated the mechanisms of culture shock, and the implications for the missionary, and other cross-cultural workers.
The treatment of the subject by T. W. Dye distinguishes between culture confusion and culture stress (1974:62). Dye focuses on culture stress in his article, since confusion usually lasts for only a relatively short time, and culture stress is the problem most often encountered. However, in this article we are concerned only with that fundamental problem of the first few weeks in the new culture: culture confusion.
As a result of self-monitoring in Marakum, our ability (or inability) to predict events around us was identified as the factor that determined whether or not we experienced anxiety due to culture confusion. If we were able to predict the behavior of others (as well as their expectations of us) in a given situation, our confusion and its resultant anxiety was slight.
Predictability is serious stuff. On it, scientific hypotheses rise and fall: "Basically, science is concerned with defining, describing, and predicting . . . However, definition and description are not the end of science but the process; predictability is the end" (Grunlan and Mayers 1979:37).
As predictability determines the quality of a scientific hypothesis, that is, understanding the physical world around us, so is it the key to understanding people around us. A lack of such understanding results in confusion. Human beings want and need to avoid confusion by attempting to predict events and the behavior of others around them (Pike 1976:51-53).
There are basically two ways to be able to predict the outcome of an event and/or human behavior. The first is to control it. For example, if you are chairing a committee, you will be able to make more accurate predictions about the agenda, who will dominate discussion, and the time of cessation of activities than if you are not the chairperson.
As aliens in a cross-cultural situation, however, most people are not in controlling situations. Even if one enjoys high ascribed status, the mechanisms used to exercise control are (at least initially) largely unknown. Therefore, another means of predicting must be used.
This other method is based on past experience. Because of what we have seen in the past, we can make an educated guess about the future. We can plan in advance the route we will take while we shop in a familiar supermarket or mall. We anticipate that the driver in front of us will turn left because the little light on the left rear part of his car is blinking. We know what kind of day it will be in the work place because of that all-too-familiar expression on the boss’ face.
This kind of prediction is subject to certain constraints, however. Since the same event never repeats itself in exactly the same way, especially in human behavior, the use of this predictive strategy is limited. What is needed is a method of generalizing predictions so that large areas of human behavior can all be predicted with equal accuracy. To do this we need a framework (often called a "model" in academic jargon).
Anthropologist George M. Foster has written, "A good model is heuristic and explanatory, not descriptive, and it has predictive value . . . a sound model should predict how people are going to behave when faced with certain alternatives" (Foster 1965:294; emphasis mine).
Having laid this foundation, this article will present examples of how two such frameworks of strategies were used in one initial cultural adjustment situation.
As noted at the outset of this paper, the unanswered questions that arise in a culture confusion situation can cause stress. During those first few weeks in Marakum, these questions (and others) were constantly on our minds:
• Will we have guests at mealtimes?
• Will someone come at an inappropriate time?
• How long will they stay?
• When will we be able to relax?
• Will they get us water like they said they would?
• When will we be able to go to bed?
• Will we be able to communicate?
• How will they perceive it if I do X?
• How can I tell if they like me?
• How can I tell if they don’t like me?
By the end of our first month in Marakum, we had adequate, albeit incomplete, answers. Two strategies helped us to be able to get answers: functional equivalents (Cf. Kraft 1979:323-327, and Nida 1960:47-61) and the basic values (Mayers 1974:149-170, 1978).
One aspect of the basic values is the notion of time orientation vs. event orientation. An example from the Siroi will illustrate how differences in this area result in behavior that is not seen as reasonable by persons with an orientation which differs.
The day came when we were to leave the Siroi for an indefinite period of time. We sat underneath a huge mango tree waiting for the vehicle to arrive, not knowing how swollen the rivers were and thus having no idea of what time it would arrive. We all talked about the sadness we all felt at having to say farewell. Then one of the village leaders suggested that Pam and I stand up and all the village walk by and shake our hands, much like a reception line at a North American wedding.
At first I declined, thinking that since we had no idea of when the vehicle was coming, it would be an anticlimax to go through that formality and then have to wait for perhaps three more hours. I suggested that it would be better to wait until the vehicle actually arrived so that the shaking of hands – a formal good-bye- would be the last event that we shared together. My idea was rejected, on the basis that it would not be good to rush the farewell ceremony.
As a North American, I have a stronger time orientation than the Siroi, whose event orientation causes them to see timing as secondary to the event. My time orientation caused me to see the event as something that must take place within time constraints. I felt that it was important to have the handshaking ceremony at a certain point in time; a very specific place within the progression of events that morning. The Siroi, however, with their event orientation, felt that the event itself should be given priority. Timing was not important; what was important was the fullness of the experience found in the completion of the event.
A functional equivalent can be quickly defined as action that can have different meanings. For example, during a Siroi village meeting, a man feels no qualms about poking his neighbor, making quiet jokes, or just generally "fooling around." To North American eyes, such behavior indicates irresponsibility and immaturity. However, in this part of Papua New Guinea, such behavior is normal meeting behavior. Irresponsibility and immaturity are demonstrated in other ways.
Another kind of a functional equivalent involves a concept that is communicated in different ways. An example of this type of functional equivalent is friendliness. In North America, friendliness is a smile and a word of greeting. In Papua New Guinea, friendliness involves a small gift of food, tobacco, or betel nut.
Awareness of the time/event difference helped us to be able to predict with some accuracy an answer to the question, "When will we be able to retire for the evening?" (As Pam was six months pregnant at the time, this was somewhat important to us.)
In Marakum, the usual evening activity is conversation which begins at about 7 p.m. and lasts until whatever time people feel like breaking up. At first, we had no idea when conversation would cease and we would be able to go to bed. But, as time went on, we realized that they were more event-oriented than we were. Therefore, the idea of a bedtime by the clock was an alien concept to them. Rather, the quality and content of the conversation (the event) itself determined how long conversation would last.
Armed with this information, we could fairly well predict whether it was going to be a late evening, an early evening, or something in-between. We saw the importance of looking at those things that affect the event itself, such as the number of people present, prestige of those present, topic of conversation, place of conversation, and whether many people had worked in their gardens that day and were tired. These were the indicators by which we would know what the evening held for us. We then began to look at these kinds of indicators instead of our watches. Of course, we still preferred not to stay up late when we were tired, but it was much less stressful if we knew in advance what was coming.
In a culture confusion situation, an awareness of functional equivalents assisted us by making the unknown, or not easily understandable, become known and/or understandable. Eventually we recognized that the drop-in visit was the Siroi functional equivalent to a telephone call. In North America, when you phone someone, you take the chance that they’re not busy and that they can chat with you. This was the same rationale used by our neighbors in Marakum. As with phone calls, their drop-in visits were of basically two kinds: just to chat, or to voice a request. Knowing these reasons made us feel much more relaxed and able to feel comfortable with their visits.
While we are not able to produce statistical data, we certainly were aware that as predictability increased, stress decreased. After a few weeks, the level of predictability in the behavior of the Siroi around us was low enough that it could be more easily handled. However, the value of these two (and other) strategies did not lessen as our culture confusion lessened; rather, they continued to help us in the ongoing struggle against culture stress.
In describing our use of these two methods of understanding others, it should not be understood that the basic values and functional equivalents models must be used, or even that the basic values and functional equivalence are inherently better than other strategies. I have used these to show that some sort of framework is needed and I have given examples of how I have used the concepts that I feel the most comfortable with. I see pattern in the world around me when I view them through the windows (Pike 1967:30) of these strategies. Others may find it useful to view through different portals.
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