Culture in Crisis, Part I: How Cultural Values Impact Communal Response to Trigger Events

Fight, flight, or freeze: these are three common human responses when one is under threat.

Each individual will respond to crises in a different way.

But does our culture influence how we, as a community, respond?

Think NYC’s response to 9/11 or Japan’s response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

From terrorism to natural disasters to global pandemics, communities and nations often respond in different ways to trigger events, based on their own cultural values.

Let’s take a look at one example.

The Amish

A school shooting occurred in an Amish community on October 2, 2006. Five young girls were killed.

Amish values include forgiveness, living righteously, and hating the sin and not the sinner, and this was reflected in their response to the trigger event. 

As Melinda Rene Miller’s paper, titled “The Human Element: A Study of the Effects of Culture on Crisis Reactions,” notes, revenge is not a part of Amish culture.

In mourning the victims of the tragedy, the community also mourned the shooter and embraced his family

They donated money to the killer’s widow and children and attended his funeral.

Sociologist Donald Kraybill who co-authored a book on the tragedy spoke on the power of Amish forgiveness, saying, 

“Several families, Amish families who had buried their own daughters just the day before were in attendance [at the killer’s burial service], and they hugged the widow and hugged other members of the killer’s family.”

Other cultures might respond to this type of crisis with a need for action, through new laws or regulations; a need for revenge or justice, through an investigation and public trial; and/or a plea for monetary donations for the community to recover.

None of these approaches would have lent themselves to the values of Amish culture.

The response of unity and emphasis on religion and humanity’s purpose on earth correlated with their values.

Behavioral and Attitudinal Reactions

As mentioned in the intro, everyone reacts to crises differently. 

Miller’s 2007 study set out to determine if, and to what degree, cultural values impact group response to trigger events.

The paper’s abstract proposes:

“While each individual person within a given community will react to a potential crisis situation in their individual ways, as a whole, their reactions will never vary too greatly, as their behaviors and attitudes are largely based upon their learned cultural values.”

Next week, we’ll delve into the results of this study, surrounding varied outcomes in communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

How Does Culture Influence the Way We Use Our Brains? Find Out Here.

We’ve all heard of “right-brain” and “left-brain” thinkers.

Left-brain thinkers are thought to be more logical and mathematical, while right-brain thinkers tend to lean emotional and artistic.

But are there any links between the way our brains function and our cultures?

We’ve talked a lot about gene-culture coevolution over these past few weeks.

In short, the theory suggests that genetics and culture are interconnected.

This brain imaging study about visual perceptual tasks seems to substantiate that theory.

Individualist vs. Collective 

Psychological research has shown that individualist and collective values are demonstrated in an individual’s view of objects in relation to their context.

Americans, valuing individuality, tend to view the two as independent from each other.

East Asian cultures, which value the collective, view objects as contextually interdependent.

These differences have been shown to impact perception and memory by behavioral scientists.

The Study: How Our Brains Work

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a look at whether these cultural tendencies can be measured in brain activity patterns.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans from a group of 20 participants – 10 from East Asia, 10 from the U.S. – McGovern Institute for Brain Research Professor John Gabrieli and his team examined participants’ mental operations.

Participants were asked to compare a sequence of images, and their mental operations were mapped via blood flow changes in the brain.

The images were lines within squares.

Participants were asked to compare each image with the previous image, making judgments based on relative judgments of interdependent objects or absolute judgments of individual objects without context.

For instance, some questions asked whether the lines were proportional to the squares, regardless of size (interdependent); others asked whether the lines were the same length as each other, regardless of the squares (independent of context).

The Results: Confirmed

While the simplicity of the task resulted in no differences in accuracy between the groups, brain activation patterns did differ.

Relative judgments, which have been shown to be harder for Americans, stimulated the brain regions dedicated to mental tasks that demand attention. 

These regions were less active for absolute judgments.

As you might guess, the results for the East Asian group were the opposite, with brain activity becoming more active for absolute judgments and less for relative.

The paper’s lead author, Trey Hedden, said of the study:

“We were surprised at the magnitude of the difference between the two cultural groups, and also at how widespread the engagement of the brain’s attention system became when making judgments outside the cultural comfort zone.”

Even more interesting, questionnaires had been distributed prior to the exam to see how closely each individual identified with their culture, using questions regarding values and norms.

Those individuals who identified more intimately with their culture’s values showed a stronger reactive pattern of brain activity relative to their culture.

This study suggests that our culture – and how closely we individually identify with our culture – can influence the way our minds work.

Pretty heady.

Population Thinking: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Contributes to Cultural Theory

Charles Darwin is best known for his theories of evolution and natural selection.

But biologist Ernst Mayr asserts that Darwin’s concept of “population thinking” is his most important contribution to biology.

In the book, How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, authors Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd delve into why this is the case.

This is what they’ve found.

The Theory of Evolution Evolves Our Thinking

Prior to Darwin’s theories on evolution, species were thought to be static and unchanging.

But what Darwin found was that a fluctuating pool of inherited information was passed on across generations over time, and this information was affected by the daily events of the species’ lives, which were also changing.

The persistence of the daily events and the spread of their prevalence would produce inherent properties and traits within a species.

In line with natural selection, those traits that allowed the “survival of the fittest” were passed on to their offspring.

Not only traits, but behaviors that benefited survival – a process Darwin called “the inherited effects of use and disuse.”

In this way, the core of the evolutionary theory is grounded in population thinking, which is the crux of cultural theory.

Cultural Evolution

Culture is an acquired state of behavior, produced via social learning.

Skills, values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, customs, moral systems – these are all acquired and comprise group culture.

And they all evolve via population thinking.

Like the theory of evolution, this theory of cultural evolution delves into why some attitudes and behaviors carry on in a group and others don’t.

As with evolution, the daily lives of people in a society contribute to the process of cultural change.

For instance, a moral value might, at one point in time, appear more appealing in relation to that era’s daily life or current events, thereby spreading and persisting from person to person in a society and generation to generation in a culture.

Similarly, beliefs and behaviors that are more easily imitable and allow survival will spread, while those that might result in group criticism or early death will vanish.

Over time, the persistence of certain beliefs, skills, attitudes, etc., create observable patterns that serve as the genes of culture.

But culture can adapt in a way that genes cannot.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk about how population thinking is enmeshed in culture.

“Time is Money”: Monochrons and Time Perception

A German manager was sent to Honduras to monitor a factory for his company.

Every single day, the factory workers showed up a half-hour late.

He held a meeting with the workers and brought this issue up, expecting to see some changes.

Nothing.

He created an incentive for being on time, offering a raise at year’s end to those who were punctual.

Nothing.

He implemented a sliding scale of punishment for tardiness, with a three-strike rule.

Nothing.

He laid down the law and fired a worker who was exceptionally late on a regular basis.

Still, the next day, workers did not punch in on time.

No matter how often he insisted that they be punctual, nothing changed.

He complained to his Honduran co-manager about this issue, and she shrugged, saying, “They may be late, but at least they show up. That, in and of itself, is rare.”

This is where monochrons and polychrons butt heads, and the frustration is very real.

Last week, we touched on the differences between monochronic and polychronic cultures.

This post will go into deeper detail about what to expect from monochronic employees or managers.

What to Expect from a Monochron

As the above example shows, monochrons – whose cultures are prominently found in Northern Europe, North America, and parts of Asia – are time-sensitive.

Time is strictly divided: there is a time for fun and a time for work.

As Project Management Institute describes it, monochrons treat time as:

“a commodity of high value, as necessary as or perhaps even more important than satisfaction, good work, and relationships.”

Time is as tangible as any other commodity, as the phrase, “Time is money,” suggests.

Time can be wasted. It can be saved. It can be killed. It can be lost. It can won.

This perspective of time results in monochrons having a stricter and more stressful relationship with the clock and, as such, they try to use their time effectively, often focusing on completing one task at a time.

As studies show, doing so is actually a more productive use of time than multitasking.

Studies indicate that multitasking is less efficient because we are less focused, resulting in shallower learning and lower achievement and productivity. 

In fact, one study showed that only 2.5 percent of people are effective multitaskers.

The fact that monochronic cultures eschew multitasking for a more focused approach indicates that they are instinctively making the most effective use of time.

A monochron’s linear thinking and proclivity to strict schedules, with a focus on one event following another (think a timetable or meeting agenda, etc.), exemplifies this.

Get It Done

Monochrons emphasize getting things done.

Punctuality. Precision. Productivity.

These are the keys to success in a monochronic culture.

Managing time to use it more efficiently results in greater productivity and, thus, greater success.

So, here’s a pro tip if you are attending a meeting with an international colleague: understand their time perspective and meet their expectations.

If they are from a monochronic culture, arrive early, be prepared, and adhere to the agenda.

I am a Third Culture Kid: Here’s What I’ve Learned

Third Culture Kids grow up in more than one culture.

Like Barack Obama or any other child who wasn’t raised in their parents’ homeland, I was expatriated and embedded in a foreign culture from a young age and learned how to adapt.

In fact, I grew up in three cultures.

My family was Swiss. At home, we had Swiss behaviors and traditions.

My school was French. I learned the French language, learned about French history and geography, and befriended my French peers.

My surroundings were African. The market, the neighborhood, the people, the culture – the reality of life all around me was that of the Mossi tribe.

I learned how to alter my body language and my behavior. Even my sense of humor differed depending on the audience.

This is what a TCK learns early on, which many only learn later in life:

Adapting is a necessity across cultures.

Perspective and Behavior

TCKs are in a specific cultural group all their own.

They are in a unique position where they are made to value various cultures, placing relatively equal importance on the behaviors and norms of them all.

The “rights” and “wrongs” that are culture-based and learned through primary socialization vary, and so the TCK learns that hardline views differ from group to group.

This allows some flexibility when navigating contradicting norms and values of the cultures into which the TCK is placed.

In this way, TCKs develop specific interpersonal behavior and standards of perspective that a child raised in a single culture does not, as they are not so exposed to opposing worldviews. 

A TCK’s lifestyle is different. Their communication is different, not only in its multilingual nature, but in its style, nonverbal and otherwise.

The complexity of their firsthand experience with multiple cultures produces in them distinct characteristics that enable their positioning as the perfect zookeepers.

Here’s why.

Zookeepers Know Different Species

Due to their knowledge of and relationship with multiple “species” in the “zoo,” TCKs have developed a natural understanding of various perspectives.

They can see through the eyes of the elephant, the eyes of the penguin, the eyes of the giraffe.

They can even see through YOUR eyes: the eyes of the monkey.

While those who have grown up in one culture develop firm values and norms rooted in that single culture, this can often hinder the acceptance of contradicting values and norms.

Those growing up in single cultures often view other perspectives as wrong, rude, forbidden, or even illegal.

Instead of seeing the whole picture and trying to understand the rationale behind another culture’s beliefs, their perspective becomes emotional, biased, and they tend to stonewall understanding.

TCKs, on the other hand, have learned how to monitor emotions about differing perspectives.

They are more adept at registering social cues and norms and more practiced at cultural sensitivity.

Just as they switch fluidly from one language to the next, they are able to fluidly adapt to behaviors of one culture or another.

To them, it is a way of life.

And this natural empathy allows them to be more understanding of YOU, the monkey, as you have “monkey moments” in a foreign culture.

In this way, they can help serve as a patient teacher between the two worlds, if you should be so lucky to secure their friendship.

A Foot in Two Worlds: Why the Best Zookeepers are Third Culture Kids

Imagine you were born in Bali as the child of an American.

You grow up at the slow pace of island life. Your days are spent on the beach, swimming and playing in the sand.

Your friends are local kids and the children of other expats.

You go to an international school. There, you have an Australian teacher, and your peers are from all over the world.

How would your worldview change if you were the child of an expat who grew up not in your parents’ home country, but abroad in a foreign one?

You might just have a broader perspective.

This can make you an ideal zookeeper (i.e. teachers for foreign expats working and living in another culture).

Two Worlds

Taking in the above scenario, it’s probably safe to say that, at ten years old, you’ve become chummy with more nationalities than many adults have.

Even more interesting, you are a child of two worlds: with one foot in your host country and an intimate knowledge of your parents’ culture.

This is what’s known as a Third Culture Kid (TCK).

Researchers, John and Ruth Useem, developed this term in the ‘50s to classify children of American expats who were living and working abroad.

These children are gifted with a unique perspective and can make the best zookeepers for those who are adapting to a foreign culture. 

As quoted from Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds:

“While growing up in a multiplicity of countries and cultures, TCKs not only observe firsthand the many geographical differences around the world but they also learn how people view life from different philosophical and political perspectives. Some people think of Saddam Hussein as a hero; others believe he’s a villain. Western culture is time and task oriented; in Eastern cultures, interpersonal relationships are of great importance…”

TCKs have grown up with more than one culture: speaking English to their parents at home and Balinese in their host culture.

Celebrating Christmas at home and Galungan in the streets of Sanur.

Barbecuing hamburgers at home and eating Nasi Campur on the beach.

During their primary socialization, these children grow up knowing and respecting the values and norms of the host culture, while also knowing and respecting their parents’ values.

Presidential TCK

This was the life of someone who was, at one time, the most powerful leader in the world: President Barack Obama.

Obama grew up as a Third Culture Kid. 

Born in Hawaii, he lived some of his formative years in Indonesia, where his mother taught English and was a Microfinance consultant who worked in rural development. His father was Kenyan.

Like many TCKs, growing up with multiple cultural influences and worldviews gave Obama a unique perspective.

Obama describes the joys of his youth in Indonesia as well as the tragedies he observed there.

He explains:

“It had taken me less than six months to learn Indonesia’s language, its customs, and its legends…The children of farmers, servants, and low-level bureaucrats had become my best friends…There was the empty look on the faces of farmers the year the rains never came, the stoop in their shoulders as they wandered barefoot through their barren, cracked fields, bending over every so often to crumble earth between their fingers…”

Through his experience as a TCK, he learned from a young age that the world wasn’t perfect or just.

He also realized that not everyone was aware of this or able to confront it. He notably refrained from sharing the unjust bits of his experience in the letters to his grandparents.

“The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable and often cruel. My grandparents knew nothing of such a world, I decided; there was no point in disturbing them with questions they couldn’t answer.”

It is this worldly perspective that TCKs are gifted with and that make them great zookeepers.

Not only does such an experience open their eyes to a broader world, it can help open yours too as an expat adapting to another culture.

We’ll talk more about that next week.

Food Culture: What HOW You Eat Can Tell You About Culture

Do you eat your dinner at the dining table, or do you eat sitting crosslegged on the floor?

Do you share a communal dish of food, or does everyone have an individual plate?

What utensils do you use – a fork, spoon, and knife; chopsticks; your hands?

With whom do you eat? Family, friends, with only your own gender?

The answers to these questions are part of your food culture – and to a larger extent, your culture as a whole. 

On the surface, you see only the limbs of the baobab – the cultural norms – but the details of your food culture can tell you something deeper about the roots (i.e. your cultural values).

The Presentation: Food Plating

Another aspect of food culture is the amount of care put into food presentation.

One study delved into the differences between American, Italian, and Japanese food plating preferences.

Titled, “Looks Good Enough to Eat: How Food Plating Preferences Differ Across Cultures and Continents,” the study found that Japanese participants prefer more formally arranged plates, while Italians and Americans prefer more casually presented food.

The researchers concluded that this springs from the respective cultures’ individualist versus collectivist natures.

The Japanese are a collectivist culture, so formality and identical presentation may have roots in the Eastern collectivist tradition.

Italians and Americans are individualist Western cultures. Self-autonomy and informality, even in how one’s own plate is presented, may be rooted in this mindset.

The study also noted the fullness/emptiness of the plated food.

The Japanese and Americans’ plates were relatively empty, while the Italians preferred very full plates.

The researchers concluded that the preference for empty plates might be related to the Japanese and American ideal of open space.

How, When, Why, With Whom?

Food norms can tell you a lot about a culture, so when you’re trying to understand/learn a culture, consider these norms to understand the culture’s deeper values

Practice this with your favorite culture – or even your own.

Ask:

  • How often do you eat? How long do you take to eat? 

Many Mediterranean countries, for instance, spend hours dining each day, as sharing food is considered an important social event.

  • When do you eat?

The Spanish, for instance, eat dinner between 9 PM and midnight, and it’s a much lighter meal than lunch. This is historically linked to their afternoon siesta and being geographically located in the wrong time zone.

  • Why do you eat?

Some cultures tend to eat only for sustenance while others take more pleasure in eating.

  • With whom do you eat?

While eating is a family affair for most countries, for others this is not the case.

Answering these questions about food culture will help you understand that culture or learn something new. It will help you connect the dots between a culture’s norms and its values.

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock, Step 3: Transfer & Alter Cues

Think back to your first few weeks in your host culture.

Although excited for the newness of the foreign environment, you felt discomfort.

Out of place and homesick, you sought anything that was familiar – that might make you feel at ease.

Videocalls to your friends and family back home.

Your favorite sweater or blanket.

Even a familiar homegrown location, like Starbucks or McDonald’s.

Whatever made you feel at home again, you chased it.

These are what we call “cues.”

They’re little things that make you feel comfortable and familiar with your environment.

And they will come in handy when dealing with reverse culture shock.

What are Reentry Cues?

As you did when moving to a foreign country, take something of your host country home with you.

This “something” can be physical, from traditional objects that you’ve accumulated to your favorite herbs and spices of the cultural cuisine.

Or it can be intangible, like routines, customs, or values or norms that you’ve adopted from your host culture, like late night dinners or family-centered customs.

Any type of cultural cue can help you adjust to your reentry.

Bring & Alter Cues

You can either bring these cues directly from your host country, for instance a traditional dress, a favorite book, or your favorite chocolate bar.

Or you can alter existing cues in your home country to mirror those from your host country.

For instance, you might alter your diet, adjusting for more veggies, more spices, etc. – whatever reminds you of your host’s foreign cuisine. 

You can alter your surroundings – laying down a carpet or mat made in your host country, for instance.

Or you might alter how you host people in your home or how you approach being a guest in others, according to some of the customs you’ve adopted.

There are many physical and psychological ways to transfer and alter cues that’ll help you transition back into your home country without fully renouncing your adopted one.

You will eventually have to fully re-adapt to your home country, but you don’t have to altogether abandon aspects of your host country that you adore.

The bottom line: introducing new cues will allow you to ease in, just as it did when you moved to your host country what feels like a lifetime ago.

Expat Returning Home? You May Face These Side Effects

We’ve been talking a lot the past few weeks about what it feels like to return home after spending significant time in another culture.

As an expat, you may find your return surprisingly difficult – mostly because reverse culture shock is unexpected.

In fact, you may become homesick for your host country.

Curious about what other side effects you may face?

In his book, The Art of Coming Home, Craig Storti outlines four mental and emotional side effects of returning home.

Marginality

Your experience living in another culture has changed who you are. Your identity has changed, your perspective has changed. You see things through a different lens.

You may find there’s a strain between your society and this new identity. You may feel like you don’t fit in in your own culture.

You are “home,” but your home doesn’t feel entirely comfortable anymore.

Criticality

Upon returning home, the values and norms you’ve adapted to abroad may make you more judgmental about your home country and society.

You may feel frustrated with the routines back home – or even unfamiliar with them. 

You might find yourself displacing this frustration on other people, becoming impatient and unpleasant.

In recalling your life abroad, you may romanticize your time there and find your home unpleasant in comparison.

This is normal.

Assessing the differences between your host country and your home country and feeling these frustrations is a typical reaction in returning home.

Exhaustion

Readjusting to a culture you’ve been apart from for a long time is just as exhausting as the initial adjustment to your host country

You have to relearn and consciously perform routines, customs, basic functions, or logistical tasks that were once done by rote, making the experience overwhelming.

Your own culture will hit you like a wave.

Just keep swimming.

Withdrawal

You may feel so disillusioned about your home culture that you start to withdraw from it and resist readapting to it, avoiding contact with your own society. 

This can provoke feelings of self-doubt or even depression.

You might want to escape. 

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock

Knowing all the effects of reverse culture shock can help you be prepared for them upon your return and build an action plan.

Luckily, you have one in your back pocket.

You are by now familiar with the steps it takes to feel at home in a culture.

After all, you adapted to a foreign one not too long ago.

And while it may seem silly, you must now apply them to your own culture and country in order to reintegrate back in.

Next week, we’ll talk about those steps in the context of returning home.

Returning Home: What Impacts the Degree to Which You Feel Reverse Culture Shock?

You are returning home after spending five years living in Ukraine – a country to which you’ve adapted and adopted to a certain degree.

You’ve had to balance your home-grown values with your host country’s; you’ve altered your norms wherever you could in order to integrate properly.

For instance, you don’t smile in public as much anymore. It was drilled into your head that those who smile at strangers in Ukraine are believed to have a screw loose.

And now you’re returning home. Back to the familiar.

Home sweet home.

And you’re still not smiling.

Home is NOT So Sweet

Reverse culture shock is the upset that you feel upon returning to your home country.

When you step off that airplane, everybody is smiling. But your face is stuck in its deadpan of Ukrainian stoicism.

It’s like returning to your childhood bedroom after college – everything comes flooding back to you and, yet, feels distant and detached.

After all, it’s all familiar, from the language to the people to the foods and the streets.

There’s only one problem: everything is the same, but YOU are different.

You are returning from your second home: your host country – a place to which you spent a lot of time and energy adapting.

You learned the language, you learned the history, you learned the religion.

You knew and began to understand the culture.

So, now, upon trying to sleep in your old bed, you’re like Goldilocks.

It just doesn’t feel right.

It may be the case that some things have changed too – new pillows, a scratchy bedspread – and your once-familiar bedroom wasn’t what you were expecting.

You realize your home no longer feels like home.

This complex mix of feelings all contributes to reverse culture shock.

Degrees of Reverse Culture Shock

The U.S. Department of State details some aspects that impact the degree to which those who return from abroad feel reverse culture shock.

Taken from Craig Storti’s book, The Art of Coming Home, the following may affect your experience of this shock:

  • Voluntary and expected reentry – whether you voluntarily or involuntarily reenter and/or whether you expected to reenter or did not can impact the degree of shock. Involuntary and unexpected reentry results in greater shock.
  • Experience – if you’ve had previous reentry experience from a foreign country, the shock is generally milder.
  • Age – older people often have an easier time at reentering due to more experience with general life transitions.
  • Extent of differences between the two cultures – the more different your home culture is from your host culture, the more difficult reentry can be.
  • Length of time spent in host country – the longer your duration overseas, the harder the return may be, as you will have adapted to your host country to a greater extent.
  • Amount and degree of interaction with your host country culture and your home culture during your time abroad – the more time and intimacy with your host culture, the harder it will be to leave; likewise, the more time and the degree to which you’ve interacted with your home culture, the easier it will be to reenter.
  • Environment of reentry – supportive and familiar environments make reentry easier. Returning to conflict, instability, or uncertainty will increase the shock, as will the lack of a support system.

Consider these aspects to gauge how difficult it might be to return home. This will help you prepare for the impact.