Culture Clash


Sunday, May 27, 2001

So many adjustments,
so little time

Beth Foley worked in New York City for an international bank that had branch offices in many of the world's large cities. One day, her supervisor offered her a major position at the office in Seoul, Korea. Beth discussed the possible move with her husband. They also talked to their older two children, ages 11 and 8, who were reminded that they might have to spend more time looking after their 2-year-old sister. Family members agreed it would be a good career move for Beth and so she reported her positive decision to her supervisor. Beth's husband hoped to land a job once the family arrived in Seoul.

After arriving in Seoul, Beth faced multiple demands on her time. She met and interacted with coworkers and supervisors. With her husband, she sought housing, schools for the older two children, and day care for the youngest. After the first few weeks, Beth became irritable and unenthusiastic about the position in Seoul. Coworkers noted she was not very productive, and relations with her husband and children became strained.

Beth may be experiencing culture shock. Many people who live for extensive periods of time in another culture experience symptoms such as: an irritable mood, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, upset stomach, headaches and decreased enthusiasm about life in general. One reason for culture shock is that the familiar methods of achieving everyday goals are suddenly taken away. For example, Beth has to meet and interact with colleagues and supervisors, but she has to do this in culturally appropriate ways in Korea. Familiar workplace behaviors learned in her own culture may no longer be suitable and in some cases may be totally inappropriate.

Another reason for culture shock is that so many adjustments have to be made in a very short period of time. The sense of feeling overwhelmed is common. Programs that prepare people for overseas assignments often cover culture shock reactions. Moving people away from the feelings that "I am the only one with these problems" can hasten adjustment and job effectiveness.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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