When someone enters a strange culture as an immigrant or expat they experience their foundation (built on the norms and values of their own culture) being ripped out from under their feet. This is called culture shock. In my first blogpost I discussed what culture shock is and the accompanying emotional rollercoaster that is often associated with moving abroad. Unfortunately there is no quick remedy to escape the process but there are a few strategies to speed up the journey to acculturation.
In this blogpost I will explain how being culturally aware can help you on your journey to acculturation and how to attempt not sticking out like a sore thumb in your new host country. Acculturation loosely means when people learn aspects of a culture other than their own. It’s a transitional phase where people adapt to a new culture’s values, customs, language and behaviour. Adapting is ultimately what anyone living abroad would like to achieve, right?
Man Does Not Live By Bread Alone
So before we look at some means of achieving acculturation, let’s look at the reasons why someone would want to acculturate at all. Why are we not satisfied with practicing our own cultural norms and behaviours as an outsider in a foreign country? Yes, people might think of you strangely or give you the evil eye but why do you care? Because it’s been programmed into us, as humans, to care. Humans want to feel like they belong. A very well-known theory used in sociology and other educational fields is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This model states that people go through five levels of basic needs: biological needs (oxygen, food and water), safety needs, a need for love & belonging, a need for self-esteem and finally a need for self-actualization (Simons, Irwin, & Drinnien, 1987). Belonging to the community you live in provides satisfaction, happiness and a sense of security. Read some more on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs here.
Education is the First Step to Acculturation
So now that we’ve established our instinctual reason for wanting to acculturate in a new environment, let’s look at how we can do this. As many a scholar has mentioned before, knowledge creates understanding and once we understand, we are able to reason and sympathise (in our case, with the host culture). When learning about a new culture we can think of culture as an iceberg which is a well-known theoretical metaphor by Edward T. Hall. The iceberg is made up of two parts: the external tip of the iceberg and the internal portion hidden beneath the surface. (Kwintessential, 2013)
The Tip of the Iceberg
The visible part of the iceberg represents those aspects of a culture that are tangible, like language, behaviour, food, clothing and traditions. These are things we can learn about even before living in the host country. I would consider language to be the most important tool in acculturating as this is the key to communicating and breaking down barriers. When I learnt the Dutch language after living in Holland for a year, it gave me the confidence I needed to go out and socialise. I was ecstatic that my conversing skills could now go a bit deeper than “hoe gaat het?” and expressing predictable statements about the predominantly bad weather. This Berlitz advertisement can show you how important language can be in communicating.
The Core of Culture
Don’t be like the Titanic and forget about the largest part of the iceberg: the invisible foundation. To be able to make sense of the ‘visible’ elements of culture we must be aware of the hidden elements. These invisible aspects are what makes up the core of culture: values, norms, unspoken rules, beliefs, worldviews etc. and are best learnt when you immerse yourself in a new country. Usually when you get au fait with these intricate views you can get with the locals (even if you haven’t completely mastered the language yet).
The Challenge: Cultural Awareness
Once you are able to understand the customs, traditions and acceptable behaviours, you may be knighted as ‘culturally aware’. Of course this term is not set in stone somewhere and you don’t need to be a polyglot to be culturally aware, but it basically means that you are able to recognize the differences between cultures and how culture can influence how people interpret the world around them. If I’ve made this how-to-guide sound easy peasy- I have to apologise for misleading you. It’s not. Being susceptible and open to other cultural values, beliefs and behaviours can be confusing, tiring and time-consuming but if adapting and feeling at home in your new host country is what you want to achieve, it will be worth the effort. Check out this HSBC advertisement to see how being culturally aware can help make the world a better place.
Want some more information on finding your groove abroad? Please stay tuned for my next post! Or have a look at some of these awesome resources:
In the meantime, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you!
Kwintessential. (2013). Intercultural Iceberg Model. Retrieved from Kwintessential.co.uk: http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/cultural-services/articles/intercultural-iceberg-model.html
Simons, J., Irwin, D., & Drinnien, B. (1987). Psychology – The Search for Understanding. New York: West Publishing Company.