March, 2012

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Published article- Mitigating culture-shock

In this globalized and highly networked world of the 21st century, culture shock is more prevalent than ever. Almost all of us have been exposed to other cultures, thanks to globalization and the Internet. These days, many of us reading this article have been virtually connected, related, and worked with diverse people from different cultures using advanced telecommunication tools or, at least, be friend with them on social networks such as face-book and LinkedIn. In short, we have crossed cultures. We either exposed to or visited or lived in cultures other than ours.

What do we all have in common when we first crossed a culture? We have experienced culture shock, especially during the early stage, before we familiarize ourselves with the new culture. At this stage, you may ask, what is culture shock? According to Wikipedia, culture shock is the anxiety, feelings of frustration, alienation and anger that may occur when a person is emplaced in a new culture.

Why we feel these symptoms? This is because we haven’t prepared for it. We have been nurtured and shaped by our culture in certain ways and when we are exposed to a culture different from ours, we don’t know how to communicate, behave, and do things in that particular culture. And therefore, we display the above mentioned signs of frustrations.

Of course, the magnitude of the shock may vary. For some of us, it might be 1 or 2 Richter scale while for some of us it might be even greater such as 7 or 8 or 9 Richter scale. I had that experience when I was exposed to the cultures of some African countries in the western and southern Africa. I travelled to some African countries while I was a student leader of Addis Ababa University in 1997/98. I had similar culture shock, more than six years ago, in the early days of my stay in the US.

The question is what we should do to mitigate culture shock? I said mitigate because we cannot totally escape some level of culture shock. For now, I have three suggestions. First, we should understand the major cultural divide in the world. Many culture experts agree that the world cultures can hypothetically be divided into individual-based and communal-based cultures. Most of the western countries such as the US, Canada, and Europe can be categorized under individual-based cultures while cultures in continents such as Africa, Asia, and South America can be categorized as communal-based cultures. Of course, we have subcultures within these broader categories. There are also exceptional individuals who may not display all of the features of the culture they are living in.

We can compare and contrast these two broad cultures using three known parameters suggested by culture experts: Context, Time, and Space. Let me just take one of these indicators and make a comparison. The culture we Ethiopians grown up, as a high context culture, most people express themselves and their ideas covertly, implicitly, and non-verbally. Most people are reserved to express themselves, and are inward. When I came to the US, I observed the opposite. As a low context culture, most Americans expressed themselves and their ideas overtly, explicitly, and verbally.

Second, we should also take time to study and research the main characteristics of a given culture before we cross it. Third, we should also take some advices from individual adherents who lived in that particular culture we intend to visit. These ways, we may, at least, avoid committing lethal cultural offenses, and mitigate the magnitude of the culture shock we may experience.

In conclusion, culture matters. It determines who we would become at the end of the day. It makes or breaks us. It releases or binds us. Thus, we should understand the impact of the culture we live in, and shed those cultural elements that restrain us from progressing and succeeding. We should also embrace multiculturalism, and develop cross-cultural communication skills so that we may mitigate culture shock, effectively communicate, relate, and work with diverse people from different cultures.

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