Culture Shock Club
Understanding the Essence of Humanity.
We all know the feeling of culture shock, either from direct experience or through the media. It’s the name we give to the sense of being astonished, baffled, or even repulsed when encountering unfamiliar cultural practices.
Sometimes culture shock can be amusing (at least to onlookers). Famously, the phenomenon was used for comic effect in Sophia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. At the start of the film, we’re introduced to Murray’s character Bob Harris as he tries – and fails – to navigate Japanese humor, conversation, treadmills, and showers, none of which work exactly as he expects.
As the film progresses, Bob moves from frustration with Japanese culture to a partial acceptance of it. In the process, his culture shock isn’t cured, exactly, but refined: although Bob is more at ease with Japanese culture, it’s still not his own.
Faced with Bob’s narrative arc, it’s tempting to think that culture shock ought to be resolved through adaptation on the part of the person experiencing it. Applying this lesson to our own lives would mean that whenever we experience culture shock, we should try to accommodate ourselves to whatever instigated it.
This is probably a useful principle to abide by in our increasingly interconnected world – but we shouldn’t be too quick to classify culture shock as simply an obstacle to be overcome. On the contrary: it also points toward a deep truth about human nature.
Seeing others – and ourselves
Culture shock can help us see the artificiality of all culture, including our own – and this can be a hugely enriching insight.
How so? The process, which you may have experienced, begins like this. When we’re shocked by another culture’s beliefs or practices, we have the chance to turn that insight on ourselves, recognizing that our culture might also seem strange to others. In other words, we have the opportunity to see that culture shock can work both ways.
I had this experience a few years ago when my wife and I were hiking across the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. Our guide asked us how long we’d been together, so we told him that we’d been married two years but had been in a relationship for several more. Clearly taken aback by the idea of our pre-marital relationship, he wanted to know if, in spite of this unusual arrangement, our parents had nevertheless organized our relationship on our behalf – a question that took me back.
We had a good-natured exchange which left us both slightly baffled about how romantic relationships work in each other’s cultures. But when mutual bafflement like this occurs, it becomes wonderfully clear to us that our own cultural assumptions are just that: assumptions, and ones that others might not share. With this realization, the neutral and inconspicuous status that our own beliefs and practices normally have for us is broken. We instead vividly see that culture is fundamentally artificial – that is, a product of human ingenuity.
What philosophical insight can we draw from this?
Well, the realization that culture is artificial shouldn’t lead us to think that it’s somehow an optional extra for humans. On the contrary: culture is essential to the human form of life, meaning that we are, as the German-Jewish philosopher Helmuth Plessner had it, artificial by nature.
Plessner’s thought belongs to a branch of philosophy known as philosophical anthropology, which tries to establish the essence of humanity. In his masterpiece, The Levels of Organic Life and the Human, Plessner claims that humanity requires culture because of the unique relation humans have to themselves.
Human beings are, Plessner argues, both like and unlike animals. An animal lives out of itself and into the world. It perceives things around it, has emotions, and acts in often skillful and subtle ways – but, crucially, it is un-selfconsciously absorbed in all of this.
Human beings, by contrast, live out of ourselves and into the world while being simultaneously aware of our doing so. Unlike animals, there is a break in the relationship between ourselves and the world: we not only perceive, have emotions, and act but self-consciously do all these things.
According to Plessner, the human essence is that we stand outside ourselves, as it were, being aware of our own awareness. And precisely because human beings have this perspective on ourselves, we can devise new ways of thinking and acting, new customs and patterns of behavior, going beyond anything biologically necessary.
This is the reason for the invention of culture. Due to the break between ourselves and the world, we can and must create the conditions of our existence. It’s a notion Plessner puts quite beautifully: “The human lives only insofar as he leads a life.”
The value of culture shock
In Conditio Humana – his most accessible yet sadly untranslated book – Plessner observes that from this open horizon of cultural possibilities, a given human society will always constrict itself. The pressures of the environment, as well as the need for a degree of internal cohesion, mean that every society limits itself to a fairly narrow range of ways to think and act.
It’s for this reason that we grow up with a particular morality, set of customs, understanding of reality, and sense of what counts as normal human behavior. Culture becomes our ‘second nature,’ the lens through which we automatically view the world, and this is why we experience culture shock when we encounter very different second natures.
The more we come into contact with other cultures, however, and the more we reflexively process our culture shock, the more clearly we see that there is no natural culture for human beings to have.
This is an eye-opening realization, not unlike the epiphany enjoyed by the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave. When released, they are freed not only from the cave itself but also from ignorance, as they see the light and world outside.
Likewise, with our eyes opened to the near-infinite ways that human beings can be, we may better experience what I call ‘anthropological joy’: the wondrous recognition of human beings in all their breadth and diversity.
But more than this, we can learn from those cultures to our own enrichment. Recall, for example, how European settlers in North America traded meager supplies with Native Americans for vast tracts of land. The Europeans believed they were buying the land at a rock-bottom price. However, the indigenous Americans, who did not think of land as a commodity to begin with, thought they were only allowing the Europeans to temporarily use it – a fateful mutual misunderstanding.
In recent years, though, more North Americans have sought to understand the Native American attitude toward the land they collectively occupy. The aim of ‘land acknowledgments,’ as they’re known, is to provide a symbolic recompense for an historical injustice. But it also has the benefit of broadening the horizons of those doing the acknowledging.
The possibilities for this kind of enrichment are endless because the human essence is an open horizon. We are unfathomable, as Plessner puts it. Our minds are further opened to this unfathomability whenever we encounter another culture and are shocked by it – and this is why culture shock is ultimately a good thing.
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