Navigating Culture Shock

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”

– Andy Warhol


The nature of culture is a body of expectations about the world that are carried in your mind. Really, more than just expectations, culture is kind of like a programming (can’t spell culture without cult!) and that programming has been reinforced down to the smallest interactions that we never think about.

So when you go to another country, the programming is all wrong, the expectations don’t make sense, wires get crossed, all kinds of miscommunication happens. This is culture shock.


The metaphysics of franchises

Franchises operate on the principle of expectations. Having the same experience everywhere you go means that you have the certainty of knowing what to do and how to act. This is very psychologically comforting, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, knowing that McDonald’s or Starbucks have free WiFi is a cultural expectation, and in an unfamiliar place, you might really need WiFi at that moment to make a call or check maps and directions. In addition, you already know how to order what you want at those places. There’s no navigating a different culture’s rules when it comes to food and restaurants, you can stroll right in, do your business, and leave promptly.

For another kind of expectation, you should know that many places in the world don’t accept credit card as payment, but you can be reasonably certain that a franchise will! We’re obviously not suggesting that you spend all your money in chain franchises, fearing the unknown of a different country. It’s just important to understand what uncertainty does to you, when traveling. The uncertainty brought by culture shock causes you to re-learn what you’ve never had to think about, and when you’re tired and hungry and sore from traveling, that can be a very frustrating experience. 


Adaptation through new experiences

This is what traveling is all about, though. Expanding your cultural expectations. Experiencing different ways of living. In Vienna, for example, the Austrians had this wonderful concept of the cafe actually being a place where you sit down and socialize. What a concept. Rather than the local bar, Austrians prefer cafes. They might have a beer or coffee, and they’ll smoke indoors, too. But their nightlife seemed much more reasonable to us.

Instead of the loud, raucous bar with music and yelling over the low roar of the crowd, cafes were socially acceptable places to have conversation for hours, without the obligation of a large bill or a hangover. The only way to find out what you like about other cultures is to battle through the uncertainty of expectation, that’s whats so rewarding about travel.


Reverse Culture Shock

Historically, the idea of creating “universal expectations” is a recent concept. Think about tea. Colonial trade brought tea from the east to the west, and that means that tea is tea everywhere you go. Hundreds of years of trading has universalized the process. You understand the idea and you can get exactly what you want. Minimal uncertainty! The same cannot be said of coffee, which has regional variations and vocabularies that could be French, American, Italian, or any other culture that’s put their unique spin on coffee production. Coffee is complicated. Tea is not. Hot water and organic herbs in a ceramic cup that you drink, simplicity itself. Just remember that fact when you’re stressed out in an unknown place, you can always order a cup of earl grey and that cup of earl grey will taste like every other cup of earl grey pretty much anywhere you go.

And you’ll need that cup of tea, eventually. Traveling is stressful even at the best of times. You might even need that cup of tea for your arrival back home, when you experience reverse culture shock. That happens, too. After spending time in Europe, you might come back home and wonder things like, “Why don’t we get five legally mandated weeks of vacation a year?” or “Why is our healthcare system so complicated when every other country has universal coverage?” or “Why is our entire infrastructure based around cars when metro and rail is so much more efficient?”

We need travel on a deeper level so that our cultural expectations can be challenged and tested. Some cultural ideas are good and helpful, and other ideas are detrimental. Travel helps us figure out what to keep and what to change.


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