I was fortunate to be able to spend the first three months of 2014 in India, and, having been immersed in the intercultural field for the last ten years I wondered how I would experience a country and culture I had read and heard so much about. Would the reality reflect the intercultural theory I was so familiar with? Would I experience culture shock? Would my intercultural understanding prepare me for any challenging situations that came my way? Or would I fall into the trap of stereotyping and making judgments based on anecdotes and clichés.
It was interesting that while everyone told me that India was amazing and I was going to have a wonderful time, much of the practical advice I received was negative. Don’t trust anyone, everyone will try and rip you off, nothing will run on time, you need to stay in a five star hotel to feel safe in the big cities and so on. I’m sure that much of this came from a desire to prepare and protect me but by the time I arrived in Mumbai I felt quite apprehensive and spent my first few days in a protective bubble of taxis and a nice hotel.
However, I quickly found the opposite to be true and while, yes, most people with something to sell try to charge you over the odds, I never felt ripped off and in fact a number of times strangers put themselves out to help me; the man that called me an official taxi and waited with me until it arrived after our bus was delayed, the family that shared their food with me when I realised that our train did not have a ‘pantry’ and the numerous people who helped me with my luggage.
The behaviours I actually found to be challenging were of a less serious nature but sometimes highly frustrating:
- The onslaught of personal questions; How old was I? How much had I paid for all manner things? And most frequently, was I married, did I have any children and why not?
- The fact that many taxi drivers could not find the address and would often ask me where I thought it was
- The need to fill out forms with what I saw as unnecessary information; did they really need to know how old I was to sell me a train ticket or where I was travelling to next to register me with the local police
- The way each person in an organisation often has a very clearly defined role and responsibilities which means that even though someone may have nothing to do they cannot help you with what you need to speed up your wait
These frustrations could fairly easily be mapped against the intercultural models we are all know and love but it didn’t take much self-analysis for me to realise that they were also a direct reflection of my own personal mapping. I am a private person, I have very clear expectations of customer service and I like communication to be clear and transparent. Other westerners I met didn’t necessarily struggle with any of the same things that I did but perhaps had their own cultural challenges to manage.
I’m not an advocate of the latest theory that culture shock doesn’t exist but I do believe we need to think carefully about how we prepare our clients for their international experiences. What prepared me more than anything for my time in India was a modicum of self-awareness, an understanding of my own personal ‘hot buttons’, an open mind, a healthy sense of curiosity and a generous dose of humour.
Cathy Wellings is a freelance intercultural trainer.