Moving between cultures – the fun and the difficulties

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Several posts on Africa on the Blog have dealt with the problems Africans face when they move abroad. This has to do, of course, with moving between different cultures. In an earlier post, I looked at what culture is in general. In this post, I would like to concentrate the challenges of intercultural communication.

What happens when a person moves to a different culture? Let’s take a dimension that is not part of Hofstede’s theory (that I looked at in my first post), but that still many people can relate to: the importance of being punctual.

Let’s suppose that Beauty, who is from culture A, is pretty punctual in her own country. In fact, on a scale of being more or less punctual in her culture, she is 8 on a scale of ten. But then Beauty moves to Switzerland. She continues to be as punctual as before. But something has changed: the context! She might suddenly move from being an 8 on the scale of punctuality to being a mere 5. Beauty will certainly experience discomfort for a while, because people around her will react in an unexpected way  to her punctuality behaviour. Soon, Beauty will come to realise this and she will change her ways. In order to regain the position on this dimension that she had in her own country, she will try to move to being an 8 on the Swiss punctuality scale – as illustrated in the graph below.

Punctuality in two countries – what can Beauty do?

But then let’s suppose that Beauty moves back to her own culture after a while. If she keeps her Swiss behaviour, she will be completely off the scale in her home culture! So she will experience discomfort again and will have to adjust again.

Over time, and depending a little bit on her talents in this area, Beauty will learn to switch between her ‘home’ mode and her ‘host country’ mode almost effortlessly and by adapting her behaviour to the culture she is in she will continue to be herself. Discomfort may be limited for example to the times that her mother or close friends from her home culture come to visit her and she has to choose between appearing a changed person in the eyes of her mother or appearing changed in the eyes of her new friends.

This is in fact important: to be yourself in different cultures, you have to be able to change your behaviour. Because who you are depends also on the position you have in the society you are in – and if you want to be seen, for example, as punctual, you have to adjust to the context you are in.

It’s important to realise that this holds not only on this dimension. It is true also for such things as what people do to show their sense of humour (or lack of it), or how people choose to show (im)politeness and many other things. Often, when people go to a different culture, they will think that the other culture has no sense of humour or a bad taste in humour. Or they will think that the others are impolite. This is because it can take quite some time to learn to appreciate how these things are handled in a different culture.

This mechanism also explains, for example why the friends one makes when first visiting another country may not always be friends for long: your initial impressions will be very much coloured by your home culture and it may take a while to learn how to judge people in the new culture in their social context. Another consequence has to do with food: people inevitably have to change their eating habits in some way or another – and this means that almost nobody who moves to a different culture is able to keep the same weight.

Another effect of moving to a different culture is that people tend to discover and appreciate things about their own culture they never were conscious of before. Take Beauty, from the example above. She probably never thought much about punctuality when she was still in her home culture: it all came ‘natural’ to her. Only when she moved to a different culture did she see what was distinctive about her own culture.

Of course, culture is not static – culture evolves and changes over time. I have to say that I’m personally comfortable with Dutch culture the way it is today, but I would have difficulty living in the culture that my parents, let alone grandparents grew up in. But still – Dutch culture the way it is today can be traced back to its earlier roots and represents an evolution from those roots, not a complete break. Yet the changes in Dutch culture can in part be explained by the interaction with other cultures.

What does this all mean for Africans in the diaspora? Perhaps this is a topic I had better leave to Africans – but I’m still tempted to try my hand at a few generalisations.

  1. Africans have an advantage: many African societies are multicultural and many Africans have grown up in a setting with many different cultures. Therefore, they have acquired intercultural communications skills in childhood, giving them a huge advantage over people who come from a monocultural background.
  2. Africans have an advantage: many Africans know much more about for example Europe and European societies than vice versa. They come at least somewhat prepared.
  3. Africans may have a disadvantage: Europeans who go to live abroad for a while usually get preparation courses that aim to make them aware of cultural differences and communications pitfalls (believe it or not) – many Africans are thrown in at the deep end without such luxuries.
  4. Africans have a disadvantage: skin tone is still all too often used as a way to discriminate between people, and usually for Africans this is not positive discrimination.

It may be comforting to know that to some extent, a Dutchman moving to Flanders will experience the same problems that a Ugandan might face when moving to the UK. As I hope to have shown, some of these problems are universally human – it’s part of the game, for anybody who moves from one culture to another.

But of course, knowledge of how other people do things can also be extremely enriching and rewarding, not only for the individual, but also for their societies. Africans who know what’s going on in other parts of the globe can be a valuable resource to their own countries and can help in steering the evolution of their home culture as well – not by denying or ridiculing it, but by embracing it and playing a role in its evolution. So on balance – I would think moving abroad is well worth the investment 😉

>Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for  four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness.

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