(Letter) Cultural differences: Let’s be brutally honest…
The reality of culture stress applies to any kind of foreigner anywhere, though obviously different people have different experiences. I have no doubt that Mainlanders in North America are just as easily annoyed by Western culture as Westerns living in China sometimes are by Chinese culture. I assume they could easily whip up a list based on their own experiences of how culturally annoying different things are, and provide lots of personal examples. In fact, that’s what I’m hoping some of our Chinese readers will do.
Anyone who moves to a different culture will experience culture stress – it’s unavoidable. And anyone who has significant relationships with people from another culture will eventually be annoyed by bumps in the road that are caused by cultural differences. The only solution to culture stress is for the foreigner to learn the culture and become accustomed to the culture. And to do that, we must choose to continually engage the culture, even when it makes us a little uncomfortable.
Below I’ve pasted an informal culture stress scale that grades the impact of cultural differences on foreigners living in a culture not their own. It’s totally informal and not meant to be authoritative; it didn’t come from text-book, but it more or less fits our experience as a Canadian-American couple living in Tianjin. It’s edited from a post titled “When the culture differences feel like getting ambushed by a firehose,” where we’re trying to understand a particularly stressful cross-cultural episode that my wife experienced recently. I’ve removed all our specific examples from each category because they were all from the perspective of North Americans living in China (to read those and further thoughts on dealing with culture stress, see the original post). I wonder how different this would be if it had been written by a Mainlander living in the USA:
A Culture Stress Scale: grading the impact of cultural differences
It’s important to realize that, for the most part, the culture isn’t the problem; the foreigner’s lack of understanding and personal adjustment is the problem. Any particular cultural difference can move up or down the scale, depending on the foreigner’s mood at the time and how well they understand the host culture.
- Cute, interesting, endearing, etc.
- Mildy irritating…
…but easy to forget or ignore.
- Irritating, gross, stressful, and/or offensive…
…but you eventually get used to it without too much effort and stop really noticing.
- Offensive, shocking, and/or appalling…
…with no redeeming qualities, but you have no choice but to put up with it.
- So offensive that it’s actually funny.
The locals genuinely intend no offense, in fact often they’re trying to be nice, but if people in your home culture acted this way it would be really offensive. These things are ultimately harmless, and often prompt good-natured laughter from foreigners that understand, though there’s still an underlying element of uncomfortableness and stress involved.
- So way over-the-top offensive…
…that it skips category #5 a threatens to make you lose self-control; basically a #4 or #5 on steroids. It’s not funny to the foreigner, even long afterwards, regardless of how much the foreigner ‘understands.’
I’m really curious to hear from Mainlanders who have lived in English-speaking countries or who personally spend a significant amount of time with foreigners:
(1) How could you rate and describe the cultural differences you experience? (I don’t assume everyone would want to use the same categories as mine); and,
(2) What examples from your experiences with Western culture could you use to illustrate each of your categories?
Some cultural differences are more superficial, like a society’s preference for queuing or crowding, while other cultural differences are more profound, like a society’s general orientation toward individualism or collectivism. I want this discussion to be wide open, and the more specific examples from your personal experiences the better.
I hope we’ll be able to enjoy laughing at ourselves, and maybe even learn something useful.
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