Sharing news and commentary about education, careers, investing, and life.

Sharing news and commentary about education, careers, investing, and life.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Preparing for reverse culture shock

Rizzo here from India. This week we're discussing culture shock, and how sometimes it's harder to adjust to one's home country upon returning, than it is when landing in a new country and experiencing a different culture for the first time.

To be completely honest, I'm quite terrified of returning to the States, and rightly so I feel. I remember having to adjust to the Indian way of life when I got here over four months ago. The two main obstacles we had to overcome were:
  • the concept of cyclical time [polychronism] and
  • the idea that attention can be focused on multiple people and multiple tasks at the same time with no loss in productivity or efficiency. It's not quite multitasking - it's actually more like multitasking on crack [polychronicity].
Both of these are very closely related and go hand-in-hand.

An example for each one. People here are always late to meetings, although it's better than what I expected it to be. If you're Indian and reading this, you've most likely heard of Desi Standard Time [DST] or Indian Standard Time [IST]. Neither of these are actual time zones, but they do summarize quite nicely the subcontinental approach to managing time, which is polychronistic in nature. A deadline is not a hard, set-in-stone point in time by which something must be accomplished [as is the case in the US], but a general time frame. The task or objective can be completed before, at, or shortly after that deadline. This took some getting used to at first.

As for polychronicity, let me tell you something about India that you should know if you ever come to the subcontinent. And if you've been to India and tried to stand in a line, you already understand what I'm about to say. Aside from the more progressive and metropolitan areas of the country [Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore], the idea of a "queue" simply does not exist. When we first got here, all we saw at the little food shops was total chaos. One guy behind the counter pulling out pastries, warming up dishes in the microwave, grabbing drinks out of the cooler, taking money, doling out change, serving prepared orders - all while dozens of people are barking orders at him and thrusting hundred-rupee bills in his face. And trying to be "civilized" about it [from our then-naïve American perspective] got us nowhere, as we would constantly be pushed, shoved and ignored out of the way. Slowly, though, we saw order in the chaos, and we could see that the one guy behind the counter could do what no pimply-faced, gangly teenager working the register at McDonald's could ever do - process multiple requests at the same time with a very high, if not nearly perfect, accuracy rate.

These are the two big things - polychronism and polychronicity. By contrast, US culture is monochronistic and monochronic. But there are a lot of smaller nuances in culture that will be hard to get used to. Another example: when we go out to dinner, we usually go to decent, sit-down-and-order-then-eat-then-pay-the-bill types of places. In other words, not street vendors [even after more than four months here, we're not touching that stuff. No way we want to get sicker than some of us already are]. And even when it's a group of 3 people, the waiters have no idea who ordered what. With maybe one or two exceptions, I haven't had a meal with friends where everyone got everything they ordered without the waiters asking, "Who had the butter chicken?" What's even better is when they'll put a dish down in front of who they think ordered it, and 19 times out of 20 they're wrong. Anyways, with these kinds of situations, although we've gotten a lot better about it, we tend to get quite upset and raise our voices. I know that speaking for myself, I've done exactly that a number of times. After all, when you pay good money for good food and solid service, you expect that.

Which brings me to my qualms about returning to the States. First off, fortunately, I don't think I have to worry about polychronism, because I've worked enough in business and gotten upset enough here about time management that I'm fairly sure I'll make the transition back to monochronism with no problems.

HOWEVER, when it comes to incompetent waiters at restaurants, I am concerned that I'll be at some place like Chili's [not necessarily high-end and classy, but at the same time a decent establishment] with my family and the waiter or waitress will mess up our orders, and instead of being civil about it I'll start yelling at him/her and make a scene - all without realizing it.

And as for polychronicity, I am quite sure that when I go to a fast-food restaurant and there's a long line, instead of waiting in line like one should in the States, I will pull out a 10 dollar bill, walk to the front of the line, wave the bill in that same pimply-faced, gangly teenager's face and bark my order at him - all while completely ignoring [and thus insulting] the fine fellow who was about to place his order right before I showed up out of nowhere and opened my big yap. That's bound to cause a fuss.

And all of the concerns I've just mentioned don't even take into account the fact that driving in India is akin to playing Chicken on I-75 in Atlanta going against rush hour traffic [in other words, driving straight at cars that are coming at you around 80 miles per hour]. It's not the fact that India's roads are like Britain's [read: BACKWARDS] and that sitting in the passenger seat here is like sitting behind the wheel back home. No. That's not what scares me. It's the WAY in which people drive that has me frightened about my own driving abilities. I've posted a video on YouTube to give you an idea of how crazy it is to be in the passenger seat on the road here, much less be behind the wheel, and my concern is that when I get back to the States I will have an equal disregard for lane markers and dividers, and that overtaking a large bus around a hairpin turn at 30 miles per hour won't sound as ridiculous as it did to me six months ago. Which means I basically have to ban myself from driving for at least a month or so until I get the hang of it again.

So as you can see, I have a lot of concerns about coming back to the States that I need to start preparing for and dealing with now.

Although, admittedly, they most certainly don't overshadow my excitement about returning home in 6 weeks.


Anonymous said...

whoa, nice perspective Rizwan! great post and insights (driving is like playing chicken on i-75 haha) -rafael

Anonymous said...

oh and that video is scary, my friend! -r

becca said...

Nice! Though the thought of being the guy behind the counter at the street vendor kind of makes me want to cry. I'm pretty sure I max out at 3 or 4 tasks when multi-tasking! I also loved the linked-to blog on polychronism v. monochronism. Excellent post!