Friday, January 12, 2007

Subtleties vs. Bang-in-Your-Face Differences.

Subtleties vs. Bang-in-Your-Face Differences.

Sometimes culture shocks are easiest to bear when you go to a country that is very different than the one with only a slight difference from yours. Somehow, when going to visit a place like Indonesia or Bahrain, you psyche yourself up for it knowing fully well that it is going to be as dissimilar as it can possibly be. So, you will be on guard all the time and paying careful attention to everything there. You will also probably read up on the place, buy a brochure and try to learn about all the great multitude of things that are so uncommon to your mind that are present in that country. You will then be able to more or less cope with the country without a huge shock as you will keep as open a mind as you can.

The locals in those countries will also be as tolerant of you as they can be because you are so different. They will usually forgive you many of your mistakes ( provided they are not criminal offenses, of course). Both you and them will be happy when you find out that inspite of the enormous differences in your cultures, there are also some similarities and all of you will celebrate the joys of such discoveries. We are all humans and we are all so much alike! What a joy to see people who, beneath the façade of distinctness have the same hearts and feelings as us!

On the other hand, when you go to a country that you think is similar to yours, such as an Englishman or another European going to America, for example, or even an American going to a place like Argentina or French Canada, you relax your guards too much. You think, hey, they look like us and often they speak the same languages and/or I can speak French and Spanish and I will be OK. Hey, they are basically the same people, so I will fit right in. Right?

Wrong. Many Brits go through huge culture shocks in the US. “Americans are so taciturn! Americans have no sense of humor!“ Many relate stories about strange reactions that Americans show to the British accent. Some admire it, some think the person is a corny snob. Some find the British way of speech, the way a Brit folds his legs and moves his arms effeminate, mistake him for a gay male, and he suffers from homophobia ( or attraction from real gays) without ever being gay.

Dressing habits also do not help. Informally dressed Americans and English Canadians evoke reactions of disgust and derision on Montreal subways among the elegantly, Parisian-style-clad Quebecois. “Tete Caree”, they call you, a “square head”. You walk up to people and speak French and they walk on with heads held high and just a dark glare at you from the corner of their eyes.

Brits seem cold as ice to Americans, and Americans seem naïve, loud-mouthed and child-like to Brits. In a Mercosur country in South America, you can get very nasty looks from people for wearing sneakers to a restaurant or be refused entry to a discotheque for the same reason. You look like them, roughly, so there is no excuse for you to not know the rules.

Oh, you are foreigner? No wonder you are so screwed up!

And the root cause of all the trouble is that we underestimate just how different countries can be from ours even as people in them look the same, and we do not read enough about them before we go there. So, the rule is this- read up on any country you go to; not only on the most exotic ones. It can sometimes happen that the “similar-looking” country can have even more dissimilarities in comparison to your culture than some bizarre place on the other end of the world’s cultural spectrum.

If you prepare well, you will be able to enjoy the subtle positive differences in such
“ analogous” countries while avoiding being smacked over the head by the bigger ones.

You can go to Montreal and buy all sorts of clothes in latest styles and fashions and walk down the street well-dressed without being accused of being gay. You can wear shoes with jeans in Uruguay,and never sneakers, and feel OK and not out of place.

The soft and polite manners of people in New Zealand, the fact that you can cross a street intersection diagonally there, as well as the sudden broad knowledge and intellectualism of a blond Australian girl in her early twenties can all be wonderful things that will put a smile on your face.

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