7. Success, Likes & Comments, and 3 Facts

I wasn’t thinking about this but it has just crossed my way and it has to do with cultural shock, maybe in a deeper way, since it has to do with a mix of emotions, perspectives, different realities and circumstances, failure and success and our notions about them.

Someone just posted a Lady Gaga’s phrase about perseverance and resilience, the importance of keep trying not matter what. Then followed by:
– 22.177 likes and hearts and happy faces
– 3 deeper reflections
– 1 person who noticed that Rocky IV had said exactly the same

What strikes me the most is 1 of these 3 deeper reflections. It says something like “I’m fed up with this First World piece of advice which doesn’t work at all in my underdeveloped country”. It sounds pretty resentful, and that’s not the best way to reach the “other half” (not real proportion, I know). But let’s not forget that resentment comes from somewhere, mostly from pain, and where there is pain there is something to be addressed. I have experienced myself and have seen others going through that feeling that says something like: ok, you are living such a different reality that you can not really get what our struggles are, the daily nuances and shades of feelings and small and huge frustrations they carry, the marks they keep eroding in our souls and bones. And I have also been on the other side, saying/feeling: I’m aware of my privileges, I’m trying to help, and this is not some kind of Suffering Contest, ’cause pain, loss, grief and struggling are common to any living creature, in any poor or rich country or position anyway.
Both are legit, and this is my 2 step cultural anti-shock way to bridge them:
1) So what?
2) Please, tell me more.

Step 1 means that, sure, we are all different, the world is not a smooth equity paradise, we can all have different perspectives and realities and circumstances that demand from us totally different doses of perseverance and resilience. So what? Should we just leave it that way? Do we need to fear or resent each other? What if we just listen, even when the other’s voice sounds resentful, or patronizing, or whatever. And here comes step 2: listen. Listen further. Deeper. Listen to more voices. Ask, think, re-think. And keep listening.

It has nothing to do with Lady Gaga or anybody who generously and openly share both their talents and struggles. It has nothing to do with perseverance itself, which is totally recommendable. But there are 2 tricky things about these partly true cliches:
Perseverance (read dreams, goals, motivation, mindset, will power, believing, etc) is super important. But it is not everything and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is always combined with many other factors (both individual and beyond the individual) that weigh in both for failure or success. When people keep trying and trying and trying and it’s never enough, that signals a collective failure, where change is needed. And those people don’t need to be told to keep trying, neither to be sorry for, but their voices to be included in a deeper discussion about our collective failures. That is the other tricky thing: We are always listening to the same voices, the successful ones, accordingly to whatever we consider success at a given moment and place. And while many of them can be very good role models, and they may have very interesting and enriching perspectives, tips and experiences, there are still at least 3 simple facts:
1. There are other voices
2. Successful voices are not representative of the majority or the average, they are just more marketable and entertaining than statistics
3. The perseverant-still-not-successful voices are the ones that can point out where it hurts, where things are not working, where changes need to be made, maybe not where to get but where to start from.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t like binary thinking, or that kind of zero sum games, as if things were black or white, or as if we needed to drop that in order to embrace this. I’m all for wider spectrums and richer combinations. And that’s what intercultural experiences are all about.
Let’s just listen to each other without any mutual resentments or prejudices, be happy for each other’s success, attentive to each other’s individual and collective failures, and let’s learn from all of it. That’s why I keep inviting you to visit, and specially to volunteer in my country, no matter if you are Elvis still alive or the worst failure on earth (impossible to measure, don’t worry).

The thing is that since success already gives you a platform from which to be heard, here I’m offering a platform to all the other voices: you are invited to share all your failure and struggling stories miguialoreta@gmail.com
We are listening. Thanks a lot.

5. Ways of saying things

I love this one. It’s the 3rd most mentioned thing when it comes to Cultural Shock. The way we say things might create misunderstandings, but most of them are funny, and they can all be solved the same way they were generated: by communication. We, both locals and visitors, just need to be open to communicate, or more precisely, to be open to different ways of communication, and open to communicate about communication itself. It already sounds messy but it’s not.
To sum it up: we are pretty expressive, with our whole body, specially our hands, we are pretty loud, we use the same nicknames in friendly and insulting ways, and we tell and ask people we’ve just met things that other cultures would wait 3 years to mention, or would never talk about, or only if drunk and then act as if it didn’t happen. But we can also make a lot of roundabouts to say or ask something that, in my experience, people from many other cultures would say or ask straight, looking you in the eye. And it is not about stereotypes, or being an introvert or extrovert, cause obviously every country can have the whole spectrum from one extreme to the other. It is how we handle communication, cultural standards about what to say and express and not, when, how, to whom.

Here are some examples:
– I’m from here and sometimes I am not able to tell if two people in the corner are fighting or just chatting. It could be any, just by watching them shaking their arms and yelling: they could be two friends so happy to meet or just about to punch each other badly over an awful argument.
– My dad says my mom wouldn’t be able to talk if she had her hands tied. We never tried, but we know.
– It remains a mystery how we, when meeting with family or friends, can talk so much so loud and everybody at the same time and still be able to catch up.
– We can ask for a coffee or the bill to the waiter across the restaurant without saying one single word, just with a small gesture of our hand.
– We can call our best friend “boludo”, which is in fact an insult, but it can also be affectionate depending on the tone and context, the same as body shape related or nationality nicknames. “Gordo” means fat, and it is a very common nickname for friends and family, pretty affectionate most of the time, and not necessarily related to the person’s actual body shape. Many people call their SO and/or children “gordo”, or “gorda”, or even other people’s babies “gordito” in the most affectionate way.
– We use diminutives a lot, specially when talking about something we love, as food, naps, travel (comidita, siestita, viajecito), or when making a request (esperame un ratito, dame un pedacito, una consultita, una ayudita).

And a short story:
When I interview people from other countries, visitors, volunteers and interns, in order to match them with local organizations, most of them (99% I would say with my mind and heart, but without ever having measured it) do not hesitate to tell me what they are interested in, what they wouldn’t like to do, what they think they are good at, and to ask a couple of questions that are important to them, often trying to anticipate way more than an Argentine could ever dream to be able to anticipate. In the beginning, when I first found myself in front of a 19 years old, telling me “I’m very good at this and that, I’ve got this and this experience, I don’t want to be making copies, and I won’t be available on Fridays cause I’m planing to travel every weekend”, inside I was like “and who do you think you are, Miss Entitled Arrogant?”. And then I learnt fast, ’cause I’m a fast learner, a good observer, an amazing interviewer, a reasonable self questioning person and an inter-cultural experiences lover. I mean: I learned to detect and state my own assets, as you may have just noticed, and I learned that I’m not even interested in judging if it is arrogant or not ’cause, as far as I’m concerned, in an interview that’s efficient. I need to know those things, and a few more that I also learnt to clearly ask, in order to help that person find the opportunities that best fit both her/him/they and the host organization. It provides us a map and a shortcut.
On the other hand, the one thing that I can anticipate to any applicant before introducing them to any local organization is: you may have a very nice 2 hours conversation with them, it can feel very friendly, interesting and welcoming, you may end up very happy. And later discover that you’ve got zero information and no idea what’s next. That’s what we do. Not on purpose. Maybe our focus is not that much on efficiency when communicating, maybe we are not trying to be as clear as quickly as possible, and we don’t save words and gestures. Our communication is more wired on feelings, we can create an atmosphere, enjoy a conversation and maybe start a bond.
You end up feeling good. Information is something way more easy to get than that.
So, enjoy the conversation, be thankful, and then ask all the important info you might need: What would I be doing here? What would be my schedule? When can I start? Who would be my supervisor? May I have that person’s cellph/email? What’s next? Bla bla bla.

That’s what I’m saying: we can be different, we can meet at some point in the middle, where we can both learn, share and enjoy something, and we can still be different, but both a bit wiser and broader and respectful. Can’t we?

Share your thoughts and experiences: miguialoreta@gmail.com

4. Rules Blurers

Rules are rules. Well… we are not that Aristotelian in that matter. And that’s the second most mentioned issue when it comes to cultural shock. To us rules are more like clouds: we can see different forms in them, they come and go with the wind, they might look perfect sometimes but they still get between us and sunshine, and they are far away up there moving much slower than reality down here. Our relationship with rules can go from a small, decent, pragmatic and necessary flexibility to a 100% mafia approach. I’m talking about both behavioral not written rules, and the Law. We might be more attached to the former. I think it has a historical explanation, and a mix of factors as education, real and perceived impunity, a pretty unpredictable reality with not much linear outcomes. The thing is we might be creating more unpredictability this way. In some areas, and for some visitors it might seem edgy, adventurous, free, much fun, or sometimes tiring, crazy or dangerous, depending on their age and background, how structured is their own mindset and culture, and their concrete experiences here. And it is, again, all about balance: while a too structured life may feel lifeless and too predictable, too much unpredictability is stressful and some structure is needed at least as the basis from which to take off.

So, here comes the beauty of intercultural experiences: you are invited to join us, and enjoy your unpredictability rush, and feel a little wild, and also to bring and share your own mindset towards rules. It is ok if you are taking a walk with your Argentine friend and suddenly Argie is across the street staring at you with a clear “What’s wrong with you?” expression, ’cause Argie automatically crossed when realizing cars weren’t coming that fast and you automatically stopped when seeing the “don’t walk” sign. You can keep respecting traffic signs and other rules. In order to learn from each other, we need to still be each other at some point. And it might be not just automatic for you but reasonably safer. Sometimes. Because you need to remember that some Argie drivers will not stop at red lights. So it is not all about just sticking to the rules, but to handle this double standard of respecting basic rules yourself / not expecting anybody else to necessarily do it. That’s how daily unpredictability feels. It’s like a dance where a dancer is following a choreography and the other one might improvise at any moment. It can be tiring sometimes, even a mess, but it can also be lively and challenging, bring up unexpected beautiful moves, develop creativity and adaptive skills, and enrich the dance and both dancers.

Of course unpredictability is not just made of a no-rules mindset. It has to do with politics and economics, climate change,  human limitations, life. Too much of it is unlivable. Too little is unrealistic and not even desirable. The thing is that our attachment to, and detachment from, rules and structures can contribute to one extreme or the other.

I guess the difference is that we here tend to see rules only as restrictive instead as a basic common platform that can free as from some worries. We could make some space in our minds and spirits if we could walk more relaxed instead of extremely attentive to a totally unpredictable traffic. But I don’t want our improvisation muscle to weaken due to unchallenging circumstances. Am I asking for too much? Noooooo. I’m just inviting you and everybody to share inter-cultural experiences, with open minds and hearts, so we can all be who we are but enriched, refreshed and awakened.

Share your questions and thoughts miguialoreta@gmail.com

3. Personal Space

In my 12 years working with international students, volunteers and interns, I found 4 major kind of “shocking” topics when visiting Argentina in this order of importance, beginning with the most shocking and mentioned:
  1. Personal space. Both physical and emotional
  2. Rules
  3. Ways of saying things. Speech and body language, timing, loudness and nicknames.
  4. Schedules

Lets start with number 1, Personal space. 
We are pretty physical and we tend to get closer, in many ways, than people from most cultures would: we kiss almost everybody for saying hi and goodbye, we get close to talk and when waiting in lines, some people even grab your arm while telling you something that doesn’t require that much attention, we stare at others on the street a lot, we share mate (local infusion) sipping from the same bombilla (kind of metallic straw), we ask personal questions to people we’ve just met, we tell anybody if we think they’ve lost or gained weight as if it was our business, some couples kiss in extremely noisy and enthusiastic ways as if “Get a room!” hasn’t ever been said on earth. But of course we avoid conversation and even eye contact on (in? at?) elevators, that’s global, isn’t it?

On the other hand, we can be pretty friendly, lively, warm and nice, open to talk and share and give info, we can joke and laugh about anything, our bonding is not yet that policed by political correctness, so you can feel mostly relaxed and refresh, when not invaded or harassed. You can always draw the line where it feels reasonable for you. It’s all about balance.
Let me tell you a story. The first time I received a foreign student in my apartment I asked her everything that came to my mind while sharing my proudly and happily homemade dinner. Like: where exactly are you from? do you like it there? why? how old are you? what are you studying and where? how is campus? do you have both parents? are they together? and siblings? how do you get along with them? do you have a special one? do you like animals? what do you think about your country’s foreign policy?
And then she asked me the only question I never thought about: “May I ask you a very personal question?”
LOL! I really laughed out loud when I realized what I’d just been doing and I found her even nicer when I discovered how gracefully she had been navigating these differences and how open she was when answering and how she kept her standards when asking. What a beautiful person she is. We shared one semester. I learned a lot from her: to be way more environmentally aware, to have a richer breakfast and having nuts for snacks, to cook carrot pies and make all kinds of huge salads. She introduced me to her lovely family when they visited, and also to an amazing volunteering opportunity and a nice wine bar in my own town. I started running because of her, out of curiosity after watching her returning home all red, sweaty and happy after her runs, saying “Hey! I have no idea why people here stare at me so much when running… But what beautiful parks you’ve got round here!”
A few years later I visited her and her husband in San Francisco. Then they visited me. And I still hope she will run for president some day.

2. Unicorns & Cultural Shock

Perhaps it’s a bit too much to talk about shock. I’m not sure we, or you, are that shocking. I guess it depends on each person’s openness and willingness to share, communicate, maybe learn something. But besides all the over stated uniqueness of each and every of us, and besides the global unicorn culture that we seem to be sharing lately, yep, we’ve got cultures. Ways of doing, thinking, bonding,  joking, working, seeing ourselves. We might have lots of different standards for lots of things. And some unexpected similarities that can also feel shocking. One could even question if shock itself is necessarily something bad or hard, or refreshing and enriching, or both, or just a regular part of life. And then find, again, that it depends on the person and some cultural standards. That said, I’m not 100%  for cultural relativism. I mean: we Argentines (some not all) tend to drive a bit chaotically and even pass red lights, and that’s a bad one, pretty unkind and unsafe. And we, not all but many, tend to stop and take time and patience to give anybody (specially foreigners) detailed directions, clearly and nicely. That’s a good one.
My general Guia Loreta on Cultural Shock would be:
  • Try to learn something before visiting, but do not try to anticipate everything. That is just not possible, realistic, or fun.
  • Once here (or anywhere): There can always be a gap between expectations and reality (while traveling as in life), and that doesn’t need to be a problem: walk that distance gracefully, enjoy it, look around, feel the fertile soil it’s made of.
  • Ask as many questions as you need, do not assume things, apologize if locals find some questions rude, and don’t take it personally if they find them funny.
  • Be also open to answer all kinds of questions and feel free to make it clear if you don’t want to talk about something or if you find something uncomfortable.
  • Special note for those beautiful people that have been taught to be nice and end up trying too hard to avoid hurting anybody’s feelings:  you certainly do not have to subject yourself to things you find awful or unfair or aggressive or whatever. It is ok if some differences do not fit you. Respect begins with healthy self-respect and has to be mutual.
  • I guess it sums up to know that we might have some differences and similarities, and that to adjust doesn’t mean to ignore them, neither judge them or rank them, but to be open, respectful and reciprocal, and try to learn from the best of each other, and to be aware of your own culture and be able to put it in perspective (don’t assume it as natural, or perfect or universal or eternal or sacred). And this goes both for travelers and for locals receiving visitors or immigrants or whatever intercultural experience life could bring.
Intercultural experiences can always be enriching and refreshing, but I get why we talk about shock: all the positive side doesn’t mean the whole thing  will be a perfect picnic. There will be awkward, weird, uncomfortable and funny moments, and exactly there is the core, the real intercultural thing, the questioning and re-thinking, the learning, the mind opener, the experience. At that intersection you can learn about yourself, your own culture and the other one.
You can send me your questions and thoughts right now to miguialoreta@gmail.com