Culture shock is a real thing

I always knew that culture shock was real. I just assumed that I was exempt.

Guatemalan culture is not like American culture. NOT. AT. ALL. Those of us who grew up in other cultures, and have spent lots of time in other cultures, tend to believe that we can adapt to any culture. Survive is probably a better word for what I (Justin) have experienced. I have yet to adapt. It is something that I am constantly praying through.

That said, I spend a lot of time thinking about culture. Every piece of communication, every conversation, every joke, every suggestion can be taken incorrectly. I get myself into arguments with people and I don’t even know how we got there or why I’m even arguing. I offend people and don’t even know it, and then when I find out, it is generally not from the person that I have offended. I have been doing some research for a message that I am preaching this Sunday dealing with the church as community. The concept of “community” is foreign to all cultures. Cultures don’t naturally form community. The academic lingo that we use to classify cultures is individualism vs. collectivism. This scale was part of the 4 dimensions used by Geert Hofstede in corporate culture mapping. The Geert Hofstede group defines it as the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.

Individualism is the high end of the scale. It is the “I” culture. America is a highly individualistic culture. Personal opinions are valued. Everyone should have one. You define your own identity. You have only yourself to blame for your failure. You are the one that is responsible for your success. You owe nothing to no one (I think that’s bad grammar) etc. It also deals with the levels of dependence that we have. In the USA we are dependent on our parents till about after college, in most cases. Dependence is largely practical and financial. Once we move out of the house we are expected to live on our own, and figure it out. Often, our actual community is not comprised of our blood-relatives, rather is a group of friends that share common philosophies or worldviews. Geert Hofstede ranks America as a 91 on the individualism scale. That’s quite high.

Collectivism is at the low end of the scale. It is the “we” culture. Guatemala is a highly collectivist culture. As a matter of fact, Guatemala is ranked by Geert Hofstede as the least individualistic culture in all of the world. Guatemala ranked a whopping 6 on the individualism scale. Notice how the analysis talks about Guatemalan culture on this particular issue:

At a score of 6 Guatemala has the lowest Individualist score; in other words, it has the most collectivistic culture in the world. Since the Guatemalans are a highly collectivistic people, belonging to an in-group and aligning yourself with that group’s opinion is very important. Combined with the high scores in PDI, this means that groups often have their strong identities. Communication is indirect and the harmony of the group has to be maintained, open conflicts are avoided. The relationship has a moral base and this always has priority over task fulfillment. Time must be invested initially to establish a relationship of trust. Nepotism may be found more often. Feedback is always indirect, also in the business environment.

When I read that paragraph a HUGE light began to flicker in my brain. I have been culturally trained to think almost completely opposite to everything in that paragraph. I have been taught to never just “align yourself to a groups opinion.” My identity has never been based on a group, it has always been me who defined my own identity. Communication in the USA is hardly ever indirect, and harmony is not as high of an ideal. As a matter of fact, we often prefer disruptive types of communication so that we can find better alternatives, assuming that harmony keeps us from seeing and thinking objectively. (think 360-degree-feedback) In Guatemalan culture “open conflicts are avoided”! Good grief, sometimes I have felt like the USA thrives on open conflict! Finding consensus in the USA can be very difficult. However, in Guatemala, not being in consensus is viewed as “intense” or “rebellious.” (Both words that have been used to describe me.)

All this to say, pray for us. Culture shock is a real thing. Cultures are dramatically different. Every single day we have conversations that we don’t understand, living in a culture that communicates very differently than the one to which we are accustomed. We offend without knowing we’ve offended. We break rules that we didn’t know existed. We seek to find peace, to show kindness, to be generous, to extend grace, yet culturally we do so in ways that are different than the culture around us. Pray that our background and our culture is never a hindrance to the gospel. Pray that we can not only adapt, but can also function as a voice in Guatemala. One that, perhaps, holds a unique perspective and can shed light on weaknesses in the culture, all the while becoming more fully aware of our own.

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