Respect as the Essence of Intercultural Adaptation

September 30th, 2013 by Tatiana

We live in a multicultural society  when people from all corners of the globe migrate to other countries to work, study or settle. When going to a new culture all individuals are faced with a challenge of not only adapting to a new culture but also of living harmoniously in it. Researchers interested in the field of intercultural adaptation have come up with numerous theories.

I came up with a new theoretical framework and wrote a paper which suggests that the respect for other cultures is the essence of successful intercultural adaptation and it proposes strategies that can be adopted.

It defines culture as a totality of a group’s values and beliefs that guide its members’ attitudes, reasoning, ways of thinking and behaviour. The paper suggests that culture shock is experienced due to the loss of familiarity which threatens the person’s usual way of life and defines it as a series of transitions. In a new culture such transitions can happen any time from the point of arrival, therefore the process of adaptation does not have a limited time scale.

Indeed, people can experience psychological discomfort at any stage of their stay in a new environment. Whilst adapting to one transitional experience an individual may then be faced with another one, to which he or she also has to adapt and so on. Psychological symptoms of culture shock are a feeling of sadness and loneliness, insecurity, loss and confusion, which can lead to anger or depression.

Cultural transitions are much more than just a change of food or a change of climate which can equally occur in our own culture. Transition shock happens when migrants are confronted with a new system of values, new ways of thinking, new ways of behaviour and new ways of living.

What is respect? There is no uniform definition of the concept. Such major religious and philosophical texts as the Bible and the Koran include respect as a fundamental human right and moral value. It is also considered to be “the first positive step in building a relationship”   and “the driving force in improving situations, where there is conflict or a need for dialogue” (Langdon, 2007).

Respect is a two-way concept. By showing respect one can gain respect back, it has the element of circularity to it. On a practical level respect includes taking into consideration peoples’ thoughts, ideas, preferences, goals, desires and feelings without any negative judgement. It also includes voluntary and willing recognition, acknowledgement and understanding, accepting their individuality and treating them with dignity.

Cultural respect  is a voluntary and objective recognition of values and beliefs of individuals’ belonging to an environment different to their own. Whilst respect is believing in the worth of other, cultural respect is believing in the worth of other cultures.

Because of differences in values, norms, systems, rules, language, behaviours and other manifestations of culture, intercultural adaptation is replete with conflict. There is a logical connection between respect and cultural adaptation.

The model shows three components of Respect: Motivation, Understanding and Attitude.

 UntitledRespect-based model of Intercultural Adaptation

The arrow from “Respect” towards “Motivation” signifies the starting point of any adaptation process lies in gaining motivation. The model recognises that cultural transferees should first of all be motivated to adapt to any transition that they encounter in a new cultural context.

The best strategies to develop motivation to adapt are:

1) Understanding the purpose of being in the new culture.

Those individuals. who stay in the country temporarily and who know that they will go back to their home culture in a short period of time, may not have any motivation to adapt to existing cultural differences. Or, on the contrary, they may be extremely motivated to adapt and enjoy the culture to the full.

2) Being clear where motivation to adapt stands amongst personal priorities.

Personal priorities go hand in hand with the purpose of being in the host culture. Being socially active, being financially stable, securing family comfort, receiving education or succeeding at work, having an adventure are just some of priorities individuals can have. The question that one must ask is where does the priority to successfully adapt stand among these other priorities?

Motivation to adapt encompasses in itself the motivation to understand how a new culture functions. Understanding of a new culture is the second stage of intercultural adaptation process. The model suggests that understanding, which is not to be confused with knowledge, can be achieved by:

1) Learning the history of the country.

History is an important foundational element of any culture. Learning history can be achieved through using all types of media – newspapers, TV, magazines and internet. Reading, travelling and visiting prominent historical places and attending history courses are just some of other possible ways of gaining historical knowledge that will help understand the way the new culture works.

2) Interacting with the natives.

Interactions with locals  in order to gain insight into their mindsets and better understand not only their values, opinions and ways of thinking, but also to understanding how certain things, for example, political systems or educational institutions, actually work.

The more individuals learn history and the more they communicate with locals in order to receive the first hand knowledge, the more they understand a new environment. The more they understand it, the more they respect it.

According to the model, after having acquired motivation to adapt and having taken necessary steps to start understanding the culture, each individual develops certain attitude towards different things in this culture.

Continually practising the right attitude is the third component of respect. This means:

1) Being positive.

Being positive implies avoiding prejudice and negative generalisations. In the context of cultural respect, prejudice against other cultures based on their values, skin colour, local dialect, cultural or religious practice, is not only one of the biggest signs of disrecpect, but also a cause for the negative attitude which hinders successful adaptation to the culture.

2) Being objective.

Being objective and open-minded is also critical. Individuals must recognise and perceive that every culture is unique in it own way and that there are no good or bad cultures.

The arrow from  “Attitude” towards “Motivation” indicates that adaptation is a cyclical process. Every time when people feel anxiety, irritability, depression or other symptoms of culture shock, they need motivation, understanding and a positive attitude towards the problem, thus demonstrating their respect for the new culture, which in turn will make them feel more comfortable in it.

In summary, intercultural adaptation is a cyclical process of psychological tension reduction, which can be achieved by developing respect towards every cultural difference that causes psychological discomfort.

The model recognises that all individuals are different and that there is no single pattern of adaptation that can be applied to everyone.

© T Tsymbal no reproduction or use without permission

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