The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, don’t let the cultural prism you carry around blind you to the most interesting facets of the experience

Culture Shock Toolbox Joe Lurie
Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a world expert on cross-cultural communication for this month’s column.

Hello, Displaced Nationers! This month I’d like to introduce you to Joe Lurie, Executive Director Emeritus of the University of California Berkeley’s International House. If you’re not familiar with it, I-House is a multicultural residence and program center that serves Berkeley’s students, alumni, and the local community. Its mission is to foster intercultural respect, understanding, lifelong friendships, and leadership skills to promote a more tolerant and peaceful world. Founded in 1930, Berkeley’s is part of a network of International Houses worldwide.

In addition to having led this esteemed cross-cultural institution, Joe has worked as a teacher, trainer and consultant. Last year, he published Perception and Deception: A Mind-Opening Journey Across Cultures, which contains the sum total of his knowledge about cross-cultural communication.

On the book cover is a cow, with the question:

What am I?

Divine?
Dowry?
Dinner?

Already this tells you something about Joe—the fact that he has a sense of humor along with many stories to tell about bridging cultures. As one of his Amazon reviewers says, the book is “sometimes laugh out loud, sometimes moving, always thought provoking.”

Joe also shares stories on his YouTube channel, along with information about how our own narratives can lead to incorrect perceptions. Tune in to watch him speak about an Italian student who thought his Sikh roommate was Jesus, the various meanings slurping and belching can have—and much more!

But for now, let’s hear a couple of Joe’s stories about gift giving, along with his theory of cultural prisms, the kind that can blind you once you exit your comfort zone. Warning: Joe’s culture shock toolbox may require donning safety specs!

* * *

Hi, Joe, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. Tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

I lived in Kenya as a Peace Corps Volunteer for three years; directed international educational programs in various parts of France (Strasbourg, Toulouse, Dole and Corsica) for four years; directed a study abroad program in Ghana for six months; and studied in Montreal, Canada, for two years. I have also traveled widely in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, New Zealand and Australia as part of my career in international and intercultural education.

In the course of your many cultural transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

I recall, while living in Ghana, offering a gift to an Ashanti chief with my left hand, which caused a very angry reaction from the chief and the villagers who were present. Little did I know then that offering something with the left hand is virtually taboo in many parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The left hand in these areas is considered dirty, used frequently to clean oneself after a bowel movement.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it any differently now? What are the tools that you think are most useful for adapting to this kind of scenario?

Before entering another culture, it’s helpful to become familiar with its values, taboos and related behaviors, in contrast to your own values, taboos and behaviors. It is also useful to spend time with someone from the countries to be visited, asking them what they see as strange, offensive, or even unacceptable in your culture. This kind of research makes it easier to pause and suspend judgement when encountering a strange, inexplicable behavior beyond the horizons of your experience.

Of course, I apologized profusely—but to little avail until another Ghanaian, who had been to the United States, explained to all assembled that I meant no harm. It was at that moment that I fully understood the spirit behind the West African proverb: “The stranger sees only what he or she knows.” The Japanese also have a good one: “You cannot see the whole world through a bamboo tube.”

Japanese proverb bamboo tube

Can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I recall an Indian friend offering me a beautifully wrapped gift with two hands—a signal that I should accept the gift with two hands, as is the custom in many parts of Asia. Also, many Americans will open the gift immediately in front of the giver, eager to know what’s there—and perhaps even feigning joy if the gift is not particularly desirable. Because I had read about and experienced the discomfort that opening a gift in front of the giver could cause, I paused and chose to open the gift in private later, in order to prevent any possible sign of disappointment that might cause the giver to lose face.

If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Travelers and new expats would do well to realize that their cultures function like narrow prisms that distort their perceptions of what lies beyond their cultural ponds. As far as the Culture Shock Toolbox goes, I would advise that you take out your chisel and keep chipping away at these prisms to include facets of other cultures. The original prism never completely goes away, but you shouldn’t let it prevent you from taking in all you can from all the people you meet in other places. It’s enlightening as well as enriching.
cultural prism and chisel

Thank you so much, Joe, for taking the time to share your culture shock stories with us! Your description of one’s native culture as a prism is spot on. A prism takes light but then bends and distorts it. And I think you are right, we ought to chip away at these prisms, or at least become more aware of their refractive effects in producing cultural biases that limit our understanding of other cultural realities. We would all, whether we travel or not, do well to heed that advice, given that so much of our world is multicultural these days.

* * *

Readers, in light of Joe’s advice, why not take a moment and ask yourself: what is my cultural perspective and what does it make me see (and not see) in others? And now if you want to learn more about what Joe has to say, I recommend you visit his author site and/or consider buying his book for further inspiration (and entertainment!).

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She recently launched a new Web site and will soon be publishing her second book, on repatriation.  

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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Photo credits: Book cover and author image supplied; all other photos from Pixabay.

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