Why Cultures Shock

25 Jan 2015 7:00 PM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)

Claire (not her real name) had been in Lagos for about 5months. She was invited to a dinner outside the apartment complex for the first time with newfound expat friends and got back sometime after 23:00. They rolled up to the gate and waited. Nothing happened: the guards didn’t open. She got out of the car and knocked on the window to the gatehouse. She could see the two guards inside, fast asleep. She was incensed. How were the guards going to do any guarding if they were asleep? She had a good go at them and the next morning reported them to the estate manager. But Claire has seen guards asleep since that first incident and is now convinced that Nigerians (guards and estate manager) are incompetent.

This is a typical example of an event we would call ‘culture shock’. Claire experiences a behaviour that she considers unacceptable, spends a lot of time being irritated and all her worst expectations about the locals are confirmed. Not only that, but her best efforts to change things go to naught.

Interculturalist Joseph Shawles[1] uses neuroscience to describe why we get irritated by behaviours when we live in a new country. Basically, our conscious mind recognises a difference between the way things are done in the new place and where we come from. As we try to make sense of what we observe, our unconscious mind automatically uses the reference we know to come up with an explanation. We use our own cultural norms and values.

You can think of this subconscious reaction like the process of baking a cake: The recipe Claire borrowed from an American friend says 3 cups of flower but she uses the European weight system so she uses a coffee cup; the recipe calls for 1/3 cup of milk so she uses 1/3 litre of milk. Her cake comes out like a cement brick – and she blames the recipe.

There is a leap in logic that Claire is not aware of:

    Guards are asleep = sleeping is a wilful disregard for the rules or gross incompetence;

    The estate manager knows of this behaviour but does nothing = he is also incompetent.

These two statements would be true in Claire’s home country. But in Lagos they don’t take into account the fact that the guards are paid very little money for their jobs. In fact, I think it is a miracle they do any guarding at all. Also, it happens often that their measly salary is paid days late. When that happens the guards struggle to find money to get to work and then are not able to buy food for dinner or coffee to keep themselves awake at night. They know they shouldn’t sleep – they have the same value for a job well-done - but they succumb to fatigue despite their best efforts.

Their behaviour (the sleeping) does not reflect a culture of wilful negligence. Rather, it reflects the system of borderline poverty that they live in.

As for the estate manager, he subcontracts a company who supplies the guards and pays their salaries. He has switched security companies before when it became clear that the company was keeping the bulk of the fee and paying their guards such a pittance that they could not realistically expect any service from these men. If he complains to the security company, they fire all the guards and hire new ones from the gigantic pool of jobless men desperate to find a way to feed their families. They tell these new ones not to complain about their salary and for God’s sake, stay awake.

I am not excusing the sleeping guards – night guards must be awake at night or they are not doing their job. But yelling at them and the estate manager will probably make matters worse: Claire will continue to be irritated, the guards and manager will recognise her as a problem and so a cycle of mistrust and dislike grows. And nothing changes.

Is there a solution? Yes.

When you see a behaviour that shocks you:

1. Realise that subconsciously you are judging the situation based on your own expectations, cultural norms and values.

2. Ask around to find out what the context of that behaviour is – why is this happening  and why does no one else seem to think it is a big deal?

3. Always begin by assuming that people are acting according to THEIR rules that govern good behaviour or at least doing their best to live by those rules – innocent until you can prove them guilty of wilful evil.

4. Realise that you have can choose how you react: you can simply allow yourself to get irritated; you can try and understand the situation; upon understanding it you can accept it, try to change it or figure out how to live with it…

5. If you really want to change the situation, realise that you will have to understand the context in order to identify workable solutions.

Notice that all of these things are to be done by the expat – the onus is on us to adapt to the local culture, not the other way around.

Is it easy?


But what’s the alternative? Stay frustrated, hibernate, leave?

In the case of the guards where Claire and I live, perhaps a solution would be for us residents to get together and buy the guards a bag of rice per month so that they are assured of having something to eat. Or perhaps we can share in the cost of providing them with coffee through the night.

Or not.

Perhaps we could ask the guards what they think a solution would be. Showing our interest would be nice – I bet they would be more determined to risk their lives guarding us if they knew we cared about their ability to do their job.

Contributed by Diane Lemieux, a Canadian/Dutch writer who has lived in 11 countries and speaks 4 languages. Her latest book is The Mobile LIfe: a new approach to moving anywhere. Find her blog at http://diane-lemieux.com/mobilelife/

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