The Art of Crossing Cultures
Craig Storti (1990).
Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press.
Pp. xix + 121. ISBN 0-933662-85-8.
As anyone who has ever lived abroad knows, the process of adjustment to a new culture is one of the most profoundly exhilarating and unsettling experiences possible. No matter how much background information is available or how well prepared one is, it seems that everything which was once routine is suddenly turned upside down. In this transformation, everything can appear to go out of control.
Craig Storti, a former Peace Corps volunteer and trainer, and now an intercultural consultant, has put together an insightful book dealing with the process of cross-cultural experiences called The Art of Crossing Cultures. In it, he focuses on how the issue can best be faced and provides a plan of action for dealing with the effects of culture shock and cross-cultural adjustment. As he states in his introduction, his purpose in doing so is to help the sojourner understand and take control of the experience, for all those whose circumstances require them to effectively interact with the local people (p. xvii).
Unlike other books on the topic, Storti does not rely strictly on personal experience or on scholarly expertise, although both can be found to some extent in this work. Instead, to illustrate and provide support for his ideas, he skillfully incorporates numerous short literary selections, most no more than a paragraph or two, from authors around the world. His choices include excerpts from Francis Bacon, Aldous Huxley, Edward T. Hall, C. S. Lewis, Paul Scott and Mark Twain, among many others. It is this literate, thoughtful approach to the subject, combined with many practical suggestions, which makes this book unique.
There is also an annotated reading list at the end of the book that provides the reader with 14 additional titles of works dealing with cross-cultural issues in one form or another. These include novels by Paul Scott, E. M. Forester, and C. S. Lewis, and nonfiction works by Paul Bowles, Philip Glazebrook, and Aldous Huxley, among others.
The book is organized around the process of adapting to a new culture. Beginning with a discussion of the overall difficulties and rewards inherent in such adaptation, Storti moves on to a description of culture shock, some common mistakes made by expatriates, and potential solutions to the problem of adjustment. He looks at specific aspects of this process, including language learning, going [-1-] on to talk at length about what happens when the goal of cultural adjustment is reached, and ending with a brief discussion of the common problems of reentry to the home culture.
Sources of frustration, anxiety, and embarrassment abound in the overseas living experience. A new climate, new job, new coworkers, new language, new food and different communications and transportation facilities all seem to conspire to make life difficult for the neophyte and even veteran traveler. A major cause of all this frustration, says Storti, is the inescapable underlying assumption that all other people think about the world in the same way we do, even though we may realize and even appreciate cultural differences on an intellectual level. Like the hero of C. S. Lewiss science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, we simply cannot make sense out of something which is totally alien to us. We have to put it into a more familiar framework, or we may not even be able to see it at all. Or, to use a different analogy, like a new language, we hear only words already familiar to us; the rest is simply noise.
To help the reader better understand the cross-cultural experience, Storti divides cultural encounters into two categories, Type I and Type II. Type I are incidents in which the local peoples behavior seems to the traveler to be so strange and inexplicable that the travelers instinctive reaction is to withdraw from the situation entirely. Type II incidents are those in which the foreigners behavior, perfectly acceptable at home, appears totally inappropriate to the natives, who also begin to avoid the situation. For all too many expatriates, a continuing pattern of such incidents may harden into one of systematic evasion and withdrawal into the artificial world of the expatriate subculture, described so well by Paul Scott in The Raj Quartet. In such a world, it becomes all too easy to deny personal responsibility and shift the blame onto the local society.
If the cross-cultural experience, then, is so difficult, is there any solution? Storti proposes a frontal attack on the problem. Using a flowchart, he describes an alternative model for the adjustment process. We expect others to be like us, but they arent; a cultural incident occurs, causing a reaction (usually negative). At this point, instead of withdrawing, we have another option: to become aware of our reaction and stop to reflect on its cause. We then find the initial reaction subsides enough for us to observe the situation more impersonally, thereby allowing us to develop culturally appropriate expectations (p. 61-62). Storti notes, rightly enough, that there will be some instances which are not amenable to this type of analysis at all. Part of true adjustment, he writes, is to understand there will always be some behaviors we will never get used to (p.68).
This method, while not infallible, has the advantage of allowing both sides to begin to be themselves, avoiding overly emotional [-2-] reactions, blame and guilt. It has the potential to transform the experience of living abroad from one of being trapped in an artificial expatriate subculture to one which opens the doorway to more personal encounters with the new culture.
Read along with another Intercultural Press book, Survival Kit For Overseas Living by L. Robert Kohls, Craig Stortis book will help the would-be traveler make the leap from one culture to another with grace and style.
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