Culture shock on the cocktail circuit

  • 2012-04-04
  • By Emily Kernot

DISCONNECTED: Ex-pats in a new land find themselves first in the ‘honeymoon’ phase.

RIGA - Have you ever experienced that feeling? The one where you move to a new place and it’s exciting but after a few months your sentiment has changed? Could be you’re going through the stages of what researcher Dr. Edward Dutton knows as Culture Shock.

Culture Shock is a term which describes the individual disorientation a person may experience when they travel to a new country, and the way of life is different from what they know. Considering how many ex-pats are located in the Baltic States, or nationals who’ve left for other lands, it makes for an interesting discussion. Perhaps what generates more intrigue is the European connection Dr. Dutton uncovered, which relates to this theory.
“In essence, the culture shock model began life in a Finnish commune in Canada,” he said.

He explained that Kalervo Oberg, developer of the current form of culture shock, was born in British Columbia to Finnish parents living in a multicultural neighbourhood. He became intrigued when connecting cultural possibilities with the names of people involved. “I live in Finland, though originally from England, and Kalervo is a Finnish name, while Oberg is a Swedish one.”

He wanted to find out more and discovered from Oberg’s obituary that his father was born ‘Mikkola,’ but changed to Wuorinen (both Finnish names) and then flipped between that and Oberg (a Swedish translation of Wuorinen).
Oberg’s parents, along with ex-pat Finn Matti Kurikka, were leaders of a kind of “proto-hippy cult” which attempted to recreate Finland at an isolated village named Sointula on Malcolm Island, located between Vancouver Island and mainland BC.

“The cult’s ideology precisely parallels the ideology behind Oberg’s culture shock model: cultural relativism, cultural determinism and stoicism.”
However he added: “I wouldn’t use the word ‘cult’ in academic writing in the way you may mean because it’s kind of condemnatory and not neutral, a bit like ‘racist’ or ‘traitor.’ I was using it in the original sense of a ‘system of religious veneration.’ But it also means a small group, often living communally, with religious beliefs regarded as idiosyncratic or strange by most people, and Sointula fits this description as well.”

Further enquiries uncovered many details about the settlers. “The Finnish immigrants [initially] lived in Nanaimo, British Columbia, working mainly as coal miners. They’d come there, presumably, because Finland was impoverished. Certainly, August Oberg’s background is that of a peasant farmer and so is his wife’s. They wanted to create a commune based on Kurikka’s ideas and they chose the island because it was forested, remote and uninhabited. They leased it from the BC government, aiming to live communally and fund themselves through lumber export. But it didn’t make enough money, there were food shortages, disagreements over ideology, people left and then [there was a] fire and resultant recriminations meant that it all fell apart.”

He said Matti Kurikka was a Finnish socialist, utopian thinker, theosophist and dissident. “Finland was, until 1917, a Russian territory. He criticized the authorities, church, etc. and was famous as editor of Finland’s largest left wing newspaper, also read by ex-pats. He left Finland in 1899 to set up a Kalevan Kansa in Australia. It fell apart and the Finns of Nanaimo invited him to lead them. He had some interesting ideas. All religions are equal; you can change things just by thinking differently; marriage is capitalist license to rape; all children should be illegitimate and married couples shouldn’t have sex.”

Dr. Dutton said Oberg’s model of culture shock reasoned that expatriates would initially have a ‘honeymoon phase.’ This would then lead to a time of ‘reaction’ where they would angrily reject the host culture and associate exclusively with other expatriates (especially those from their own country) to “grouse” about it and hopelessly romanticize about home. Following that would be a time of ‘coping’ where they would come up with strategies, such as trying to learn the language, laugh at their situation and “kind of patronize foreigners in the first two stages and try and help them.” Eventually, they would realize the host culture was just another way of living, and once that happened, their culture shock would evaporate.

He said that although concepts about culture shock were developed by Oberg, the idea was not conceived by him. “A lot of anthropologists think Oberg coined the term. He didn’t. He made it into a stage theory in 1954. However, there are earlier uses of the term – referring solely to stage two. The earliest I found is 1929 when an anthropologist called Manuel Gamio noted that Mexican immigrants in the USA became so homesick that they returned home.”

“For Oberg, culture shock is a mental illness which can be ‘cured’ only when you accept that the new culture is ‘just another way of living.’ So, you are either mad, or you accept this idea. If you are still in culture shock after many years, the model is not wrong. You just haven’t had your breakthrough yet. You remain psychologically ill. This is symptomatic of religion, where only a conversion makes you better.”

He started researching the topic “systematically in about 2009” but became interested in it in 2005 when he moved to Finland. He was told by a long-term ex-pat that he was in stage one and would experience the culture shock model, although Oberg was not mentioned at that time.

“It also fascinated me that ‘culture shock’ was used as a way of shutting down negative debate about Finnish culture. If you said something negative you were dismissed as being in stage two of culture shock. If you were positive, you were dismissed as being in stage one. Shutting down debate because it questions dogmas is common in religion and should not be in science. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Oberg’s culture shock was quasi-religious, or part of a ‘replacement religion.’ I did a Theology BA and a PhD on conservative Christianity, so religion has always fascinated me. Basically, my view is that Oberg’s model expresses forms of replacement religiosity or ‘ideology.’
“I think that with the breakdown of Christianity in Europe, ideologies have become replacement religions. Like religions they involve dogmas (irrational beliefs), fervor in belief and a sense of agency behind the world (usually a kind of ‘fate’ in these cases). This can all be seen in Oberg’s model of culture shock.”

He said Oberg argues that culture shock is overcome not by gradually getting to understand the culture, but by accepting the dogma: ‘it’s just another way of living’ and all cultures are equal; just as for Kurikka, all religions are equal. “This is similar to certain religions which argue that once you accept a certain dogma, then everything in your life will suddenly be better. It fits with stoicism and even Freudianism. It’s unsurprising that the empirical research indicates that expatriates never reach what Oberg calls ‘complete adjustment,’ even if they have ‘reverse culture shock’ when they return home after a long time abroad.”

He went on to explain that Oberg sees Western and non-Western people as fundamentally different. “Non-Western people are the products of culture and history and are not responsible for the problems in their societies, which Oberg argues result from how they live their lives. But Western behavior, such as ethno-centrism and stereotyping, is not explained away by Western history and culture. Oberg blames Westerners for their behavior and suggests that they need to reject it, implying that they have the freedom to do so and are responsible for the nature of their ‘culture.’

Oberg also condemns the stereotyping of ‘natives’ but finds it acceptable to stereotype Western expatriates as being part of a ‘cocktail circuit.’ This is the same inconsistency seen in Kurikka, who condemns Lutherans while preaching that all religions are equal. And it is seen in Christianity as well. You prize the less successful – the meek – and claim that all are equal. But you then harshly judge the ‘out-group’ who doesn’t accept your ideas.”
Dr. Dutton sourced his information about Oberg and his family from archives, other Finnish sources and obituaries. “I also corresponded with colleagues who remembered him. I tried to track down family but he doesn’t appear to have had any children, or even nieces and nephews, his siblings all dying young.”

Oberg’s family, along with about half of the village, including Kurikka, eventually returned to mainland Canada. Kurikka died in the USA in 1915. Oberg went to the USA as a postgrad and took U.S. citizenship in 1945, dying in Oregon in 1973. “Oberg’s mother died in a mental institution, speaking no English, because she was convinced that all the Finns in her village were trying to kill her. Not speaking the language after so long is an example of culture shock.”

Dr. Dutton said Oberg’s argument is that culture shock is caused by your new environment not making any sense. “I think this is more likely in the Baltics, for the kind of Western European and U.S. high tech workers, etc., than in many European countries, not only because of the difficult or not well-known languages and lack of English (compared to somewhere like Holland), but also because people don’t know much about these places and they’re more different, if you’re American for example, than Holland or Norway or Sweden would be. This makes the culture more surprising and difficult than, say, that of Sweden and thus more likely to induce culture shock.”

He said the lesson that could be learnt through Oberg’s life at Sointula is: “Possibly that some socialization with co-nationals can be good in the early stages of culture shock because it helps you orient yourself.” However, he added that too much is not good and leads to stagnation and a failure to integrate and enjoy the new life. “There must be a balance between “closedness” and openness and Sointula is clearly too closed. The other lesson is perhaps that you should live according to logic and reason and possibly an element of religious belief as a means of holding society together. But extreme religion – fervent, close-minded, dogmatic and illogical – creates closed and unsuccessful societies. Having got over Communism, I think the people of the Baltic States could tell me much more about that than I could ever tell them.”

Dr. Edward Dutton will be speaking at Rigas Stradina University on April 17 at 18.00, and Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania, on April 19. His recently published book ‘Culture Shock and Multiculturalism’ can be bought through Cambridge Scholars Publishing or on Amazon and bookshop Web sites.