Culture Shock: Why it Matters and How it Impacts our Relationships and Careers.

From the time we are very small we learn the norms of our primary culture, what is right or wrong and what makes our family members laugh. Through this natural process we learn how to behave and how to be successful in our environments. This was the first concept that I learned as I sat in a warm classroom junior year at American University. I, and the thirty other international studies students who surrounded me, were fortunate to have signed up for introduction to cross cultural communication with renown guru, Dr. Gary Weaver. Dr. Weaver until he passed away in April, maintained a cult following among the campus and with the foreign service officers, corporate leaders and academics he trained. I signed up for the class with no understanding of how profound the concepts he taught would be and how they would serve me in my relationships, career and understanding of myself.

Most people correlate culture with the food, language and clothing that originates in a certain region. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, culture is the beliefs, assumptions and values, past down from one generation to the next. It is only when we become aware of our cultural programming that we are able to understand how we react to certain things in our environment. Dr. Weaver would say that all cultures fall somewhere on a cultural continuum. On the far left, what he would call “to do” cultures and the far right “to be” cultures. Those who fall into the “to do” category are heavily achievement oriented. Prominent values include personal action, earned status, independence and class mobility. Those who are more aligned towards the “to be” culture are collective, collaborate and status is ascribed. He would also define culture on the scale of “low context” where communication is highly literal to “high context”,where there are hidden rules.

When we enter into a new environment, whether a new country or workplace, especially where the dominant culture differs from our primary culture, we are forced to learn new rules and values. Depending on how much the new culture differs from our own, we experience a breakdown in communications more frequently. The lack of sense of control causes us to experience culture shock. Though, different individuals exhibit culture shock in different ways, it is never pleasant. We can never be our best in the midst of culture shock, especially if we aren’t aware that it is occurring. When we are in the midst of culture shock, we exhibit a loss of confidence in our own abilities and if we don’t see others of our culture around us thriving, panic can set in.

Though the prism from which we view the world is heavily influenced by these ideas, culture is not widely discussed. We don’t have enough empathy for what takes to operate and compete in a culture that is vastly different from our own. This could be why so many women, including myself, complain of “impostor syndrome” in the work place and why the gender gap is such a complex issue to tackle. I truly believe that it starts with a basic understanding of our own culture and that of others.

The discomfort that we feel when we go through culture shock should by no means deter us from getting out of our comfort zone. In nature, when a lobster is growing, it must let go of its current shell to form one that is larger and stronger. During this time, the lobster is most vulnerable to predators. This is a good metaphor. When we take the chance to connect with people from different backgrounds and put ourselves in situations that challenge our values and beliefs, like the lobster, we grow. From cultures crashing together comes innovation and transformation. It also helps organizations avoid “group think” and the world is better because of it.

After graduation, armed with this invaluable knowledge, I have spent the past dozen years working in communications and have seen first hand the impact of culture shock on effective communication. I have worked with a wide range of individuals, from Ministers to Mayors — entrepreneurs to social change leaders. Through this work, I have seen individuals who are brilliant in their own language and culture, struggle to be understood, despite their technical language abilities. I have witnessed it in the C-suite where a founder gets stuck in their own views and can’t innovate to keep the company’s competitive edge. I have witnessed a “to be” oriented colleague not take credit for an achievement in the fear of not being seen as a team player and then being passed up for a promotion. And on the other hand, a “to doer” loose a client pitch because they were way too direct and didn’t take the time to build a relationship with key decision makers.

Knowing that you are in the midst of culture shock does not make it go away, but it does help. It provides the altitude to process the experience and the confidence to know that being different doesn’t mean worse. It provides our brains a cue to think back to strategies from the past that helped us to be understood or overcome barriers. Sometimes just naming it can be a powerful way to begin to spiral upward.

I, like many Americans, am a product of many cultures. Born in Colombia and raised in New York City, I still feel euphoria at the smells of fresh cut papaya and I cannot spend too long without being exposed to intense sunlight. I learned to decipher the rules of each culture and stay vigilant at how I am perceived. I, like many multicultural kids, learned that words can have many meanings from a young age. But it wasn’t until I learned these important concepts that I was able to harness the power of my multiculturalism and see diversity (and those quirks as a result) as a tool and a resource.

And as our country becomes more diverse and in many ways more polarized as a result, we will need these tools more than ever. I hope to do my part to keep Dr. Weaver’s teaching and memory alive by spreading and growing his body of work until all backgrounds are equally represented at the top and until we find harmony with our differences. They are our greatest resource as a Nation.

— Natalie Alhonte