Re: culture shock

John Pastore (venture@CANCUN.RCE.COM.MX)
Fri, 10 May 1996 05:14:55 +0000

On 10 May 96 at 16:22, Robert Thornton wrote:

Hi Robert,

> Sadly, I have never experience 'culture shock', Tofler-istically or
> otherwise. I am not sure what it is since I have, I think, always
> found all cultures rather shocking, and have felt alien in all of
> them to more or less equal degree.

> I think that it must be true that many people, perhaps most, do
> indeed experience shock in other countries and other cultures. But
> why?

I think you already answered your own question. It's not so much
people being 'shocked' by another or their own culture --especially
when having experienced so poignant a comparison by havng just moved
from within one culture to another. I think the 'shock' has
something more to do with two realizations. First, just how either
culture does, and will, get on without them -- including, and
especially, all those peculiaralities which should seem insignificant
compared to the person who had just passed within those cultures. And
second, the realization of having mistaken their naivity for wisdom
after having perceived those peculiaralities.

> Are there some deeper, biologically/psychological condditons or
> correlates? It has seemed to me that it might be worth thinking
> about some of the non-linguistic, non-congnitive experiences of
> 1) smell: do some people react more strongly (positively or
> netgatively) to different spices, cuisines, body odors, smells of
> environments (dung, earth, reeds, pine-wood, brick?). Is there an
> odour of culture? or cultural odours, in other words (it seems to
> me that there are).

Definitely --especially upon arriving to places familiar or new,
before the senses become saturated with the odors of the enviornment
being entered, when still realtively fresh and alert. Uopn getting
off the El of NYC at Allerton Ave. in the Bronx, the first thing that
hits one is the combined odor of pickles marinating in wooden casks,
asphalt, pizza, carbon monoxide, the baking of Italian pastries,
Jewish ryes, etc. In Atlanta, its the fumes, and pinewoods and
dogwoods too. New Orleans, being 14 feet below sea level and the
Missisippi itself, is the smell of clogged storm drains about to
back-up, mixed with chickoried coffee grinds. In Cancun, its a musty
smell of decaying tropical verdure, and the charring of wood for
the coals for the late night taco grills. Sundays in the Bronx
smelled of tomato and meatball sauces simmering until church was
over. Similarly, Atlanta smelled of iced tea, New Orleans of red
beans and rice, and jambolaya, Cancun of beach sand and sea breezes.

> 2)space: Do some people respondd to physical closeness
> differently
> than others? It is clear that differnt cultures priviledge
> different proximities, so that, no doubt, some people with different
> 'natural' personal space requirements have to fit in or feel
> estranged, and strangers definitely do. (I have noticed that I
> personally have almost no mandatory body-space and so fit in quite
> naturally with African cultures which is one reason that I live in
> Africa, perhaps?)

Seems so. In the States, no closer than arm's length when conversing,
for example, seems appropriate. In Mexico, which is highly
territorial, the same distance, nevertheless, applies. Only Lebonese
here, second and third generation, will press closer than that when
in head to head conversations. If you required no space here, by the
way, people would respect it on a social level, but they would think
you unimportant, and, in business, you would be taken advantage of.

> 3) sound: there are different preferences for tone, timble and >
> aspiration in different langauges and these 'sound funny' to people
> > who are not used to them. Also, different musics or different >
> rhythms of life, either of speech, daily routine, or seasons, must
> > have a subtle disorienting effect much as jet-lag does.
> (Indonesian > music makes be nervous as a cat, but African music
> which is equally > percussive but tonally and rhythmically
> different is what I like.)

After about five minutes, the marimbas starts coming across like
Chinese water torture -- a ceaseless plunking on your forehead. The
mariachis, on the other hand, are like Italian operas with their
brass, and drunken, but bel canto, serenading of damsels on

I still think the 'culture' shock experience really does have more
to do with travel than anthropology pe se. The shock may be less
cultural than otherwise as well --especially for novices.

The flight of a plane --the passage of a train, bus or ferry to a new
destination often mark one's life like the changing of chapters in a
good book. The break from something old to something new, from
something measured to something yet defined, has always in itself
been most alluring.

Its during these interludes --when one finds oneself between one
place and another, between a sentimental departure and an expectant
arrival: where life seems most to proclaim itself.

Ka Xiik Keech Ya Utzil,

John Pastore
Writer/Guide in 'El Mayab'
("The Mayan Homeland")