Culture tremors


Since I've been back, I've been musing about culture shock. I'm not the world's best travelled person, but I've visited a fair smattering of countries, and even worked in a few for a fairly extended period of time: Italy, Austria, France, India, New Caledonia, and of course, USA. When I visited the first five places on the list, I did of course experience a degree of culture shock. The landscape, the climate, the food, and -- most significantly -- the language were all very different to what I was used to. But somehow -- because I knew that these places were 'foreign' -- I was expecting to find differences and the shock wasn't much of a surprise.

I realised when we got back from the States that I felt more culture shock going to the States, and I think that the difference is precisely that there is less difference. For Brits, America seems as if it should be familiar: we feel as if we know the landscape, architecture, culture and people intimately from films and TV shows. And the language is the same -- more or less (we still get jelly and Jell-O confused when we ask for what we call jam, which leads to some funny looks). But there are slight differences which, like looking at fractionally out-of-focus images, give you a feeling of vertigo and a slight shock every time you encounter them amidst the familiarity. I began to feel a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole; there are Ford cars, but they don't look like the Fords we have in the UK, crisps (chips) look just the same, but taste slightly different, taps (faucets) don't work in quite the same way, and there are enough subtle differences in the language that you have to think before you ask for something.

To give you a perfect example, we saw a British woman in Orlando airport ask for "20 Marlboro Lights" (a perfectly standard request in the UK) in a Duty Free shop. We knew that she meant a packet containing 20 cigarettes, but the cashier evidently thought she meant 20 packets of cigarettes. Much hilarity ensued.

So, I propose a new term: 'culture tremors' -- minor discombobulation caused by very slight cultural differences that creep up when you least expect them.

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