Monday, March 23, 2009


"The Unprepared Visitor" has already began to creep into popular vocabulary. Culture shock is the effect that immersion in a strange culture has on the unprepared visitor. Peace Corps volunteers suffer from it in Borneo or Brazil. Culture shock is what happens when a traveller suddenly finds himself in a place where yes may mean no, where a 'fixed price' is negotiable, where to be kept waiting in an outer office is no cause for insult, where laughter may signify anger. It is what happens when the familiar psychological cues that help an individual to function in society are suddenly withdrawn and replaced by new ones that are strange or incomprehensible.

This phenomenon accounts for much of the bewilderment, frustration, and disorientation that plagues Americans in their dealings with other societies. It causes a breakdown in communication, a misreading of reality, an inability to cope. Yet, this is relatively mild in comparison with the much more serious "malady." It is a time phenomenon, a product of greatly accelerated rate of change in society. It arises from the superimposition of a new culture on a old one. It is culture shock in one's society. But its impact is far worse. For most of the Peace Crops men, in fact most travellers, have the comforting knowledge that the culture they left behind will be there to return to. THE VICTIM OF FUTURE SHOCK DOES NOT.

Take an individual out of his own culture and set him down suddenly in an environment sharply different from his own, with a different set of cues to react to - different conceptions of time, space, work, love, religion, sex, and everything else - then cut him off from any hope to retrest to a more famaliar social landscape, and the dislocation he suffers is doubly severe. Moreover, if this new culture is itself in constant turmoil, and if - worse yet - its values are incessantly changing, the sense of disorientation will be still further intensified. Given few clues as to what kind of behaviour is rational under the radically new circumstances, the victim may well become a hazard to himself and others.

Now imagine not merely an individual but an entire society, an entire generation - including its weakest, least intelligent, and most irrational members - suddenly transported into this new world. The result is mass disorientation. This is the prospect that man now faces. Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it.

This will not be found in "Index Medicus" or in any listing of psychological abnormalities. Yet, unless intelligent steps are taken to combat it, millions of human beings will find themselves increasingly disoriented, progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environments. The malaise, mass neurosis, irrationality, and free-floating violence aparent in contemporary life are merely a foretaste of what may lie ahead unless we come to understand and treat this disease.

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