To the left of me an eager young man, to the right of me ... you guessed it, an eager young man. In front of us our manager. They had all just caught up and exchanged all of the secret handshakes and face contortions of their alma mater, (insert name of technical college I can't remember). Then Joe, our manager, turns to me and in with a smile that is attempting to be fatherly and managerial but instead was read as arrogant and slightly conceding asks,
"Well where did you study, not that it could ever be as good as ... (insert name of technical college I can't remember)??"
"I got my Bachelor's degree at UW-Madison Wisconsin and my Master's degree at Ben-Gurion."
Just like that the color drained from his face as he awkwardly phished for anything he could say to reassert his position as the big dog in charge.
As much as I would love to tell you that was the last time I had to prove that this little girl was more than capable of the job and nothing but purple carpets were laid out at my feet at every office I entered, sadly (or for your entertainment), I cannot. This was my first day at my first proper hi-tech job.
This, however, was not the first time I found myself the only girl in a room full of men. Nor was it the last. Since that day, it has been 10 years of, well, mostly confusion. I now believe it is because of culture shock.
Before you write me off as a complete weirdo, let me explain my view of culture shock.
When you live and grow up in the Western World, you take basic mannerisms and social norms for granted. Then one glorious rainy day you decide to run away from it all and you book a flight to the Far East or the African Jungle. In the excitement of embarking on this adventure you “prep” yourself for all of the cultural differences you are about to experience. You know about living on malaria pills and not having plumbing readily available. You won’t understand the local language so you learn how to say ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in an attempt to bridge the gap.
But this isn’t really culture shock, because you are more than prepared for it. Real culture shock happens when you go to a place that looks and feels just like home. The cafes look the same, plumbing is readily available, English is spoken everywhere so communication isn’t an issue. McDonald’s and Starbucks on every corner. Ah, familiarity. For me, this story takes place in Australia. I went to a restaurant with a friend that lives in this amazing place that feels like home (with a funny accent) that just happens to be in a completely different hemisphere. After I was fully satisfied with the foreign experience of a burger and fries the bill arrived and I began to work out how much tip to leave the waiter.
“Oh, we don’t leave a tip here”
I went silent and could feel my face go from red with embarrassment to white when all of the blood dropped to my feet in 0.2 seconds flat.
“What do you mean you don’t tip?”
I just could not handle this concept. As we left the restaurant my entire body felt uneasy. It felt as though I had just gotten away with standing in the town square dancing naked and screaming at the top of my lungs and everyone magically finds it acceptable. It just didn’t feel natural.
To me this is the true experience of culture shock. This is a sensation I have felt far too often in the office. The person across from me in a meeting is a human just like me. We are speaking the same language so I understand every single word that is being spoken. He even has the same technical background so the professional jargon is understood. Yet, for some strange reason I feel nothing but complete confusion and frustration. It’s as though I am caught in the Abbott and Costello routine of “Who’s on First?” but it isn’t funny.
Women and men are human beings, and because of that, we just assume that the person of the opposite sex standing in front of us is having the exact same thoughts and experience we are. So, why on earth would they choose to react in such a bizarre way?
The truth is, women and men are very different. They have different body chemistries, brain structures, and values that add up to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding.
We might be standing in the same room having the same conversation, but we’re not really understanding one another.
Just like landing in a cafe in Antarctica and expecting the coffee to remain piping hot just like you're used to.
Since we don’t walk around with translators in the office and it’s not always clear there is even the need for a translator, the next best option is to take the time to learn and find new ways to communicate.
At the end of the day we all just want to be heard and understood. Awareness is the first and most important step.
Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to our world, let’s start really talking and really listening.
Please share your stories of ‘Culture Shock’ either in dealing with another country or just someone at work. The more we share the easier it will be for us to start talking.