Is 'Culture Shock' a Thing of the Past?

In a recent conversation with a businessperson I was told that ‘culture shock’ was a thing of the past. According to my informant, many business people are now familiar with the cultural dos and don’ts for behaving correctly in different countries. They travel regularly to other cultures and are not fazed by the sights, sounds and smells. The facilities in most locations, even those that would once have been classified as hardship locations, now often include five star hotels. And all these factors combine to reduce the stress that expatriates previously encountered on assignments overseas.

We are seeing an increase in the regular business traveler and a decrease in the traditional expatriate assignment. The threat of terrorism, the costs of long-term assignments and the impact of the dual career family combine to make extended business trips an attractive alternative as has been observed by many International Human Resources surveys.

Due in some part to the advances described above it may be that these visitors experience less of a ‘culture shock’ response than the longer term expatriate. The term ‘culture shock’ was coined in the 1960s at a time when many people had not traveled or experienced other cultures to a great extent. Now it seems to carry with it the negative connotation of being shocked and horrified at the differences the traveler is experiencing. It may be more associated with a level of international naivety or prejudice that the business traveler would seek to avoid. Culture shock is not very P.C. And yet the stages of ‘culture shock’ as they were described by people can be a positive experience.

For many people culture shock is reported as that time when; “you feel like you are knocking your head against a brick wall”, “you’ve lost your sense of certainty about the right way to do things and the predictability of the way people will respond”. In change management or learning theory terms culture shock seems to me to equate with the stage of conscious incompetence.

Learning new patterns of behaviour has been described in the following four stages. Unconscious incompetence, when we are not skilled in what we are doing but not aware that we lack those skills.   Conscious incompetence is the often-uncomfortable process of realizing how little we know and how much we have to learn to become competent. Following this stage we move on to conscious competence when we are very aware of what we are doing, perhaps mentally reminding ourselves to do things in a certain way that is more skilled and competent. The final stage in the learning process is unconscious competence when we are so skilled in the new behaviour that it has become second nature to us.

Is it possible that extended business travelers have been insulated from the awareness of how little they know because of the short time they are in the host culture? Are they unconsciously incompetent? Because they may be aware of the basics of different ways to behave in a culture and not put off by the exotic food, drink, or smells the business travelers may feel that they are relating well with a culture.

We need to think beyond a list of just dos and don’ts to understanding the value differences which create the mindset that the host culture is working from.Without this knowledge it is unlikely that the business exchange will be successful. With this knowledge the business traveler can understand the background rationale behind the behaviours of their staff, colleagues, clients or suppliers. This can lead to more effective management, communication and negotiation skills which will work within the host culture.

The key to learning is to admit we may not know it all and be willing to be open to the learning process.