Remco Hesper from Amsterdam
Culture shock is a fascinating subject when you’re NOT in the middle of it. There is a lot of writing on cultural differences (e.g. Geert Hofstede) that is quite entertaining, but I remember my first culture shock as one of the most scary and confusing times of my life. It came to me like a flu:
- First I felt fine: I spoke some of the new language (Spanish) and I could switch into a shared language (English) anytime.
- Soon I started feeling less healthy as I discovered that I didn’t quite master the language yet, but fortunately I could still switch into English.
- I started feeling really sick when I discovered that the message I tried to convey in English was understood quite differently by the other person. The word “father” for example just doesn’t have the same charge in Spain as it has in Holland.
- I started feeling really bad and in need of serious help when I stared feeling that the words I said and the gestures (bodylanguage) I made were completely inappropriate… and could lead to serious misunderstandings at the most unexpected moments.
When a Nigerian says “yes” it may mean “yes” but it may also mean “yes, but not this week” or “yes, but not while I am here”
And when a Chinese says “bu tai shu fu” (It is not very convenient) that may mean anything between “It is not very convenient right now” and “How dare you propose this? Have you no shame?”
When a Latin American woman tells you she “feels depressed” about something, she may actually just be slightly out of her mood. Too much care and attention is likely to be experienced as arrogant and patronizing.
When a Swedish woman tells you she “doesn’t feel too well” that may actually mean she needs immediate hospitalization.
A French client will say “that’s impossible” at least five times before he accepts your offer.
A British client will say “yes, yes, I agree, excellent” at least ten times before saying “no, thank you”.
It can be very confusing. Communicating between cultures is a lot like beating drums hoping the other person will understand what you mean. Even if you share a language that you both understand the risks of a misunderstanding are enormous. And the confusion doesn’t stop with language. The total of communication means spoken language, intonation, pauses, eye contact, body movement, touching… and possibly more.
I once observed a conversation between a Spanish teacher and a British student. The Spanish teacher just kept moving his arms like he was hoping to inspire some enthousiasm in the British student’s body language. Not a chance! At the same time the student kept nodding and trying to make eye contact with the Spanish teacher who would not look him in the eye. It was hilarious.
And remember Nokia’s advertising campaign with the emotional states of Finnish people, with a picture of the angry Fin, happy Fin, sad Fin… They all looked exactly the same! When our company went to Finland to present a business deal, we had absolutely no clue whether the client loved our presentation or hated it. Only after numerous drinks we found out how enthousiastic they were.
The only real remedy for culture shock that I know of is a good sense of humour, but there are a couple of other things you can do.
I will post those later this week…