Cross-Cultural Communication: International Communication

International Communication: A Process of Discovery

by S.A. Mousalimas
Oxford University

Proceedings of the Conference on Inter-Cultural Communication
Mirny Polytechnic Institute and Sakha (Yakutsk) State University
Mirny, Sakha Republic (Yakutia)
27-28 April 2002

Page 2 Page 3 Page 4
(2) Culture Shock, the second phase

The second phase, culture shock, commences as soon as the person becomes involved as an individual among the local population. It may be brief, as during a few moments when a tourist ventures into a local restaurant or shop without a guide; or the experience may be prolonged, as when a person visits a place often and interacts intensively.

It can become acute when someone remains among the other nation as a sojourner or settler.

Inevitably, one will find that some modes of interaction among the local population are different from one's own familiar modes. Some of the ways through which everyday, mundane tasks are accomplished are different from those at home. This occurs through many aspects of the experience. It can occur during practical tasks. Obtaining either a sack of tomatoes or a plane ticket may be relatively easy for someone at home. The process might become complex elsewhere. Confusion can ensue, and sometimes with absurd consequences.

Confusion can occur during interpersonal cross-cultural discourse, also. A contrast between modes of discourse may serve as an example. A person who derives from a nation where the normal discourse between individuals is direct, emphatic, "straightforward", may become confused in another nation where discourse is indirect, subtle, "round-about". This person may not be able to interpret the subtleties in the other nation, where directions are expressed as suggestions, where disapproval is expressed by a question, and where disagreement might not be expressed verbally at all. As a consequence of this sort of confusion, for example, some Americans will refer to the Japanese as "inscrutable". Inversely, when someone derives from a nation where discourse is "indirect", that person may become offended when directions are given emphatically as imperatives ("Do this, do that"), or when disagreement or disapproval is expressed openly. So, some Japanese will perceive Americans as "rude cowboys".

The more one interacts, the more one encounters these sorts of difficulties. Customs differ. Language differs (yes, even when variations of the same language are held in common). Inevitably, one does becomes confused.

The confusion occurs at subconscious levels of one's experiences as well as conscious levels, and I suggest that the confusion at the subconscious levels is the most upsetting. I shall use a personal example to illustrate this point.

About twenty years ago, I went from the western USA to live in Oxford. Certain English traditions were still in place here then. It was not my first trip to England, but during the previous visits I had gone no further than the "touristic" phase, as I recognize it now. Coming here to live, and therefore being obliged to interact as an individually daily with the local population, I found that people of my social class did not normally shake hands when they greeted each other. I would extend my hand, but it would be taken only grudgingly after some hesitation. On a conscious level, I quickly perceived that the shaking of hands was not customary, and I quickly adapted. On a subconscious level however, it felt to me as if other people did not want to touch me.

On a conscious level, I quickly adapted. At subconscious levels, I remained deeply disturbed, and all the more-so because other aspects of the international experience were being interpreted similarly by me at the same subconscious levels. When I would walk through the streets of Oxford, people of various social classes would not make direct eye-contact with me. They would turn their eyes away from me. Again, I learned on a conscious level that direct eye contact was considered to be impolite here at that time, and so people to whom I had not been introduced, who did not know me, would look away. This was polite according to their customs, and I learned about this custom quickly on a conscious level. Subconsciously, however, it felt as if people did not want to look at me. Nor would they take my hand to touch me, except grudgingly.

This unnerving feeling was intensified due to different customs of hospitality, also. The English appeared to me, initially, to be inhospitable because their customs of hospitality did not involve manifest, or lavish, gestures of generosity. It appeared to me, again, as if they were being reticent, hestitant.

All of this increased my feelings of isolation on subconscious levels. While I was entirely engaged socially during almost every minute of the waking days, and doing rather well, and while I understood the difference on a conscious level, I felt isolated at subconscious levels.

These examples may appear to be superficial, but the differences in the mudane, everyday customs at the surface of life can become the most distrubing, the most disorientating. The familiar, predictable, everyday world has changed, diminished, and perhaps disappeared. The everyday world that used to give one a sense of place, and a sense of self, no longer exists as it once did.

One, furthermore, might see the world differently than people of the other nation do. This can be upsetting for the sojourner on conscious levels now, as well as subconscious levels. I have noticed this problem repeatedly and consistently among students in international contexts. Some of my students from Muslim countries have had difficult problems of adjustment when they find that the people around them do not consider the Muslim religion to be supreme. Some Americans have similar problems when they find that people of European countries, including Great Britain, and many other countries around the globe do not see the USA in the same way that Americans tend to see themselves. These are two examples. There are numerous examples.

The more ethnocentric a person happens to be, the more difficult these problems become. If one imagines one's own nation to be supremely good and absolutely better than others, then the person will become even more confused in a nation that does not hold the same view. Ultimately, this contrast can become an opportunity for self-assessment and self-awareness (if the person is capable of these qualities of self-assessment and self-awareness). Initially, however, the experience is shock.

The world is not familiar anymore during this phase, and one can no longer project one's own mental categories over the differences (as one does during the initial phase).

What are some of the manifest, social results of culture shock? Manifestly, one will tend to minimize one's involvements with the local population, because the differences are too uncomfortable. People in culture shock will tend to confine themselves to people of their own nation. We can see this occurring consistently among students in international contexts.

People tend to create a social enclave, comprised of the same nationality. Typically, inside the enclave, the national group can maintain their own ethnocentricism (that is, their view of their own nation as supreme). Inside, the home nationality is exalted, while the local nation is demeaned. Almost everything in one's home nation is described as good, sometimes to fantastic proportions, while almost everything in the surrounding, foreign nation is described as inferior, even horrid. Yes, the categorizations tend to become this absolute. It is an irrational symptom of shock.

The national enclave may be a temporary step towards adjustment in some instances, a step during which people will feel secure while they adjust to a new world. In some instances, furthermore, a national enclave of sojourners or settlers (migrants or immigrants) may serve a longer, vital purpose for their national group and for the local population as well, as when an enclave strives to protect and perpetuate valuable traditions that might otherwise be lost through wholesale assimilation.

So, I am aware that a national enclave can be useful, allowing people an environment in which to adjust. I am aware that a national enclave can be wholesome, offering something to the wider population, enriching the local population. I am also aware that members of a national enclave can foster wider relationships, becoming involved with the surrounding population in cooperative social relations.

In this summary analysis, however, I am emphasizing the instances in which the "enclaving" is a symptom of culture shock. It is a typical symptom.

Let us review the characteristics of the second phase in the international experience, which include:

How does one emerge from this phase?

We must admit that not everyone can. Some cannot because of their own national peculiarites. Some nationalities actually reinforce boundaries to extreme degrees of exclusivity. When those inside the enclave continue to define others, outside, in radical terms as "infidel", "gaiur", "goy", or "polluted", for example, then the result must be a non-cooperative "enclaving" or a minimally cooperative "enclaving".

Quite apart from our awareness of those sorts of national peculiarities, we must furthemore recognize that some personality traits inhibit emergence. Even if someone belongs to a nation that does not set such radical boundaries against other people, even then the individual might not be able to cope with the differences outside one's own group. So, a person may opt to stay inside a national enclave without extending social relationship into the wider population, because it is more comfortable inside.

Yet others do emerge.

Continue to Phase 3: Adaptation and Re-orientation

Citation Guidelines for this Page

Mousalimas, S.A., "International Communication: a Process of Discovery", page 3, Cross-Cultural Communication: International Communication, Proceedings of the Mirny Regional Scientific-Practical Conference on Inter-Cultural Communication: Issues of Politics, History, Language and Literature (27-28 April 2002), Mirny Polytechnic Institute and Sakha (Yakutsk) State University, edited by S.A. Mousalimas, 2002, available at http://www.OxfordU.net/mirny/2002/mousalimas03.html.


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