For this blog post, I’d like to cover some interesting aspects of how we all react differently to living in a new cultural environment. Whenever we enter a new culture, we are liable to experience the phenomenon commonly known as ‘culture shock’ where we can become overwhelmed or disorientated by experiencing a totally new way of life or witnessing cultural norms that are totally alien to our home culture. In this blog, I will touch on culture shock amongst other cross-cultural phenomena.
During my time at University, I was lucky enough to study Intercultural Communication where I learnt about Culture Shock and other things that contribute to what anthropologists refer to as our ‘World View’ such as the differences between Individualistic and Collectivist cultures, Globalisation, Food, and concepts of Time and Space. I don’t want this to turn into a research thesis so I will keep it pretty straightforward!
Firstly, from a personal perspective, I don’t feel as though I have really experienced much culture shock. I think this is down to a number of reasons. Firstly, my only two long-term partners were both born in Africa and are from African backgrounds. This gave me a very personal insight into a lot of cultural norms that are found across the continent, including the amazing food! Secondly as well as being of mixed heritage, I have been lucky to have lived amongst people from various different backgrounds and cultures in my life. My area of Sharrow in Sheffield has a high immigrant population and also a well-established Pakistani community. Several of my close friends are from different backgrounds, so I have always had exposure to other cultures. Thirdly, I feel the things I learnt in my undergraduate degree have equipped me extremely well for withstanding a lot of the cultural challenges we face here.
The underlying thing that I have always held in my mind and something I learnt very early on at university is that we cannot rank cultures. No culture can be deemed to be greater, more advanced or better. They may differ in terms of complexity, tightness (eg. how strictly cultural norms are adhered to) and the level of individualism or collectivism but it is impossible to grade a culture or directly compare. This is because in some cultures, there are things that are different or totally non-existent in others.
On the Buses…
A good example I have found here in Ghana to give a direct comparison of life in the UK is the public transport system in Accra. This consists of the privately regulated bus network of ‘Trotros’ or as the young people call them ‘Troskis’. These are smallish minibuses that usually fit between 15 – 20 passengers along with a driver and conductor – known as the ‘mate’. There are no formally recognised bus stops, no timetables, no printed tickets and you definitely won’t be able to buy a day saver here! However, the system is on the whole extremely efficient. Buses are regular, affordable and as long as you have local knowledge of where each end destination route stops off at, you can easily plan long journeys at a fraction of the cost of a taxi. Mates hang out of the trotro shouting the end stop: “Accra, -ccra –cra –cra” “Madina-Madina-Madina-Madina” “La Paz – La Paz – La Paz” and you simply hail them by pointing at the ground – none of this arm waving we do in the UK!
So when I consider the bus network back home in Sheffield with its shiny bus stops, detailed timetables and large, modern vehicles – surely the system back home is better, right? Wrong. The buses in Sheffield don’t stick to the timetable with buses often late or missing. Buses are on the whole expensive with fares rising all the time – if there’s two or three of you, you may as well get a taxi. More often than not, the place you want to go means you would have to take two buses for what should be a long journey so it’s no wonder people often opt for their cars or alternative means of transportation.
So on reflection, whilst initially we may look upon the transport system here as chaotic, unpredictable and strange – once you get used to the cultural norms or ‘rules’ surrounding it, it quickly becomes clear the system works a lot better than what we consider to be more ‘organised’. As I type this, I know I can step out of my front gate and within two minutes a bus to town will arrive. That’s partly due to being lucky living by a main road but even so, if I was back home I would be taking a risk of whether the bus would show up which is why I usually walk to town!
Hopefully, this example will give an idea of how our perceptions and what we consider to be ‘normal’ can be challenged when we step into a new culture. This is why this experience has been so valuable for me as whilst I may have studied the theory, this is the first time in my life I have lived in a different culture for any length of time. If you want to know more about what I’ve covered here, I can highly recommend reading the theories of Harry C. Triandis who influenced a lot of this blog.
If you’d like to discuss my piece further please feel free to tweet me @LiamShrivastava or leave a comment below.
Until next time!