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Cultural Stress

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Virtually everyone experiences some degree of culture shock. Rapid change causes stress and cultural fatigue, whether we understand how it works or not.

Three responses to culture shock are possible:

All three responses to culture shock imply some change to one’s own culture. Those who resist the new culture inevitably harden their values and beliefs. These people become brittle and lack the flexibility that their culture, like a living organism, require to survive in a changing environment. They either drop out of the mainstream and become marginal, or in the few cases where they wield great power, attempt to impose their values to everyone else. Those who assimilate forfeit their own culture and with it, often, self-esteem. To acculturate one must live in two worlds, often simultaneously, and attempt to divide live into separate compartments, creating considerable cognitive dissonance, e.g. having one view of authority at word, another at home and sometimes not feeling good or confident or competent at either. Of these three choices, acculturation will be, for most people in the workforce the most practical and realistic choice. For most managers, this means a shift from assimilation, melting-pot thinking to acculturating themselves to the new workforce and helping others to do so as well.

In assimilation one culture is swallowed up by another. The values, customs, language, and ideas of one group are exchanged for those of the mainstream. This never happens totally. First, because the devouring culture gets ”indigestion” – there are things that simply can’t or won’t be assimilated – and, second, since “you are what you eat", the dominating culture winds up being changed by the people it tried to swallow up.

Those already established in the culture say. “Why learn about the newcomers? They should learn about us and speak our language correctly if they want to work here. This mindset puts others down, and labels and judges them, e.g. “They’re all lazy, arrogant, secretive, just not right, etc.” It tells the newcomers, “Out with your strange behaviour, your funny language, your smelly food” The newcomer can also buy into the melting-pot mentality: “I have to be just like them.” Where I came from is bad, here is good.” No matter what it costs, I have to fit in”, Don’t teach the children about the old country, let them be South Africans,”

Many cannot, and today, would not if they could, disappear into a cultural or organisational mainstream. More people than ever are demanding that organisations adapt to culture differences that they find important. As a manager either you will make it mentally and emotionally clear how everyone can win collaboratively, or else no one will win. If you allow differences to turn political, they can be irreconcilable, for a long time.

Our objective is acculturation, not assimilation. Acculturation means learning enough to not only survive but thrive in a new culture. It is a shared street. Certainly, newcomers to a workplace must learn enough to do their job to do this, and management’s job to help them. But in the new workplace everyone is a newcomer. The changes are so great and happen so quickly that everyone, from the lifetime employee to the new hire, can be suffering from culture shock and need acculturation. The Transcultural leader helps the whole organisation acculturate the new workplace culture and become collaborative and productive in it.