by Lee Cuesta
I have lived and worked on two continents, and in multiple countries. Culture shock is inevitable. I remember a cab driver in London, and even though she was speaking English, I could not understand her! I remember seeing bull fights on the television screens in the Mexico City airport. In Guatemala City, I remember cockroaches on the bus, and slugs on the floor inside the house.
Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. It’s when the novelty and excitement wear off, and the reality sets in.
We are feeling culture shock, but we didn’t go to a foreign culture; the foreign culture came to us.
In Mexico City, just the simple sound of the truck engines reminded me that I was in a foreign culture — along with all the crazy traffic and the smell of air pollution. Or listening for the truck to arrive in your neighborhood, ringing its bell, which meant it was time to bring out your trash — and give the workers a tip.
Typically, one experiences culture shock when he or she travels to another culture. In our current situation, however, it is reversed: we are experiencing shock because the different culture has come to us. So we are seeing signs of anxiety, stress and confusion — and feeling them ourselves — which are symptoms of culture shock.
This is due, of course, to the rapid social changes that are occurring. The covid culture has arrived, bringing these already familiar circumstances: Weddings and karate classes online. Playgrounds closed with yellow caution tape. Suspicions elicit action from contact tracers.
Where I live, I feel like I woke up at the masquerade party. Face masks are now mandatory, and so at the home improvement superstore the other day, I saw customers with full facemasks, covering their entire face; one looked like Chewbaca. Great for the shoplifters.
Lines on the floor require social distancing at the check-out counter, but none of this is required for rioters and protesters. However, the rioters have discovered the benefit of wearing masks to conceal their identity. Watching the civil unrest in our own cities, or on TV or mobile devices, we feel like we live now in some sort of Middle Eastern culture.
Today, in our society, multitudes experience culture shock without ever leaving their homes — literally — because their own culture is changing before their eyes. When we do leave our homes, it’s like we’re living in a foreign country. We are feeling culture shock, but we didn’t go to a foreign culture; the foreign culture came to us.
In addition to culture shock, our day-to-day society now exhibits symptoms of future shock. This is the title of a book by Alvin Toffler published in 1970. Future shock is now defined as “physical and psychological disturbance caused by a person’s inability to cope with very rapid social and technological change; any overload of a person’s or an organization’s capacity for adaptation or decision making.”*
Every day we are witnessing the inability to cope with very rapid social and technological change. There is deep personal and social uncertainty, plus an inability to move ahead with future plans. The future is too uncertain.
“Future Shock sold millions of copies at a time when society was in churn, amid riots over the Vietnam War, the maturation of the civil rights movement and the growth of centralized mass media. Toffler defined the phenomenon as ‘too much change in too short a period of time.'”**
“Too much change in too short a period of time:” this creates instability in our society. So we worry: when will it be stable again? Yet when our culture does stabilize, it will not be the same culture that we remember. It has changed permanently. It is a foreign culture. And perhaps it is impossible to regain stability. Perhaps instability is the new normal, which provides little hope for escaping these feelings of culture shock.
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