culture shock

Its timely that I’m currently teaching a module on Cross Cultural Communications. A couple of weeks back I spoke briefly about culture shock, and thanks to this, I recognise that I am going through this process right now.

I dont want to feel like this, I want to move beyond it, but its difficult given that its a two way dynamic: I need to accept French values as legit, but I strongly believe they also need to accept mine as legit too…. and that second part isn’t there.

On discussing the subjects ‘what is sacred to the French’ and ‘what is french culture’ more recently, I came across a couple of concepts which have helped me to make more sense of France…. but they also made me feel resentful because a) I disagree and b) regardless of whether or not I agree, I am being measured by these values.

The first concept was mastering one’s emotions. The French see it as futile and weak to allow your emotions to show, so one must learn to master and overcome them. According to my source it is also seen as unfair to subject someone else to your untamed emotions. So for the benefit of everyone, you should learn to suppress them.

I accept that this is how it is in France. But I hate the idea that I am perceived as weak for expressing my emotions. I happen to think I’m quite strong, and I think it is healthy to express your emotions. In fact I think the idea of having to master your emotions ignores what it is to be human. I’m not saying that we have to fall into a crying mess every time we feel something, but I am saying that we ought to be taught to recognise our emotions and to deal with them as we each need to (as individuals). What might be right for one person, may be completely wrong for another.  Take tangihanga, the Maori funeral process which takes three days, as an example.  I strongly believe that tangi are a healthy and appropriate way for me, as an individual, to grieve and come to accept the death of a loved one.   But I also recognise that this process can be extremely uncomfortable and inappropriate for many others, and that’s totally fine by me. We all process emotions differently, and I don’t believe a ‘one size fits all’ way of managing emotions is possible.

I also dont agree that we shouldn’t subject people to our feelings just ‘coz they might make people feel uncomfortable. I especially think we need to express our sentiments to those who perpetrated or provoked us to feel any given way. Again, I dont think you need to sprial into a rage at someone, but I think it is your right to tell someone how they made you feel.  If we upset those we love, I believe it is our right to know we have caused harm and it is our duty to accept responsibility and sort it out. Having this information means that we can do some sort of damange control; we can try to rectify the situation or at the very least, we can avoid it from happening again in the future.

I also learnt that you should never admit wrongdoing. You could (possibly being the operative idea here) apologise, eventually, but you should never say you were in the wrong. Apparently this causes you to lose face, as well as anyone that you wronged.  I should add that all of this conversation took place with a communications practitioner who worked for a multinational french company, so I gather that they know what they’re talking about. But again, while I accept this is how it is in France, I have difficulty accepting that it is a healthy way of communicating and dont want to be measured by my ability to do this. I would rather suck bit up, have some humility and say I was wrong.

Whether in France or Nz, I have seen how damaging it can be to not admit any wrongdoing, and I just cant accept it as a general guideline. I understand that validation is one of the most important things you can do for someone and invalidation, one of the most isolating. But this idea of never admitting to any wrongdoing appears (to me), to be the opposite of validation. How do you find closure and/or learn to trust people who have wronged you, but who refuse to acknowledge the impact this has to you and/or them? What does this say about the level of respect someone has for you, when they simply refuse to acknowledge the hurt they caused?

I mean, when you look at the Waitangi Tribunal process, first and foremost iwi usually want acknowledgement of the wrongs that were done by the NZ Crown. By doing this, it provides validation and it recognises the effects to the victim. These allow the victim to heal, to find closure and to move forward. So to turn a blind eye to the grievance process…. to me it seems inhumane. Like we’re supposed to be superhuman or something.

Ah, but if there’s one thing I’ve started to come to terms with, especially since teaching English, it’s that the French (in general) aspire to perfection.  The thing is, I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I’m also a perfectionist, yet I don’t see how divorcing myself from my emotions helps me succeed in life. Perhaps the difference is that I don’t aspire to any external ideal of perfection, rather I try to be the best I can be. This means recognising both my strengths and my weaknesses, and working to both. Isn’t it just foolish to try to succeed without recognising our potentital as well our limitations?  We are only human. We will never be perfect, no matter how hard we might try. And divorcing ourselves from our emotions, I just don’t see it as a very realistic way of being in this world.

As a side note, while researching for my class last week, I came across a study claiming that Japanese people aren’t able to identify and/or respond appropriately to extremely positive or negative emotions. As they’re taught to supress emotions at either end of the scale, they’re not exposed to them as often and as such, they’re not in the habit of having to read or de-code these emotions in others. I find it rather fascinating and wonder if the French might have the same issue, though maybe not to the same extent.

Anyway…… I know I’m going through a stage of culture shock, so lots of cultural differences are magnified ten-fold, and they’re annoying me. At least I can admit that much.

I cant wait for this moment to pass though ‘coz right now I just feel like an alien. While I speak the language, I know I dont communicate according to French values. In NZ I know how to communicate effectively and respectfully, but right now NZ feels soooo far. It is a small comfort though, to know that my values do exist somewhere, if nowhere else.


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