Culture Shock

Be prepared in advance
However good your English or however great your preparations, whether for a short visit or a lengthy residency, you can't avoid a culture shock. You will experience a kaleidoscope of emotions which are not only associated with the language barrier. Many are related to the loss of habitual orientated habits, customs or guidelines in the social environment and complicated adjustment to unfamiliar culture surroundings. A range of feelings could arise as a result of responses on everything that has been seen and heard in this new country. You can feel acceptance and appreciation, enjoyment and admiration, surprise and misunderstanding, confusion and disappointment, non-acceptance of customs and a desire to debate about stereotypes of English people and their way of life. Of course you take in your surroundings and feel their effect on you while your judgements mainly depend on the duration of your stay in Britain. As a rule, pleasant emotions and elation of new exciting surprises prevail over the negative feelings during the first few days or weeks on arrival in the country.

As for me, the sky above England seemed to be so much bluer than in Russia and sales assistants in the shops were most polite and showed great consideration for their customers. But that was nothing compared with the smiles and 'hello's' I received from passer-bys in the streets - except in London! This was a far cry away from the sullen faces that greet you in most Russian city streets.

Driving Style
Driver's behaviour on town roads is worthy of praise in ballads of time to come. You arrive at a pedestrian crossing, too preoccupied to pay attention to the red traffic light and step out into the road without the dreaded fear of being run over by a speeding Lada or BMW. At the last minute you cast a glance, by intuition, towards the potential danger in the form of an approaching motorcar and see it has already stopped, and you fix your eye on the smile of the understanding driver. His gesture says - 'you first, I'll wait'! It's then only left for you to 'sing' a thank you, nod your head and cross over to the opposite pavement.

Again, a far cry from the usual practice of putting your life at risk as you try to dodge from side to side with crazy Russian drivers bearing down on you with screeching brakes, blaring horns and wicked glaring eyes behind the steering wheel. On the whole, the driving style in England arouses admiration and is worthy of imitation.

Now regarding English queues! The first time you come face to face with them is when you need to get a visa in the British Embassy or Consulate in one of Russia's cities and after that at the airport. Of course, these are not proper English queues because the queue consists of Russian citizens. But even so, you realise that the shape of the English queue is somehow different and couldn't be framed within a stereotype. Russian queues generally have tendency to spread at different sides. But English queues are regulated and formed rather as a linear structure. At the same time in English queues nobody tries to cut into the line or try to push to the front. They don't create excuses to say that they have queues for ages or that their train leaves in 5 minutes - all good Russian excuses.

So one can say that real English queues are different from Russian not only in shape but also by the general atmosphere that hangs over them. People in English queues keep a space between each other and are usually silent and look relatively laid-back. It seems that people came only to stay awhile because they have nowhere to go. That's out of character with our native queues, which are a suitable place for socialising as well as expressing negative emotions on wide range of issues. Wouldn't it be nice for Russians if a very simple portable queuing system could be introduced? The English people know which side is the 'right side' by the simple use of a few metallic posts and lengths of rope. The introductions of these would make Russian queues look more or less civilised.

Something for nothing
It's a wonder to me, especially at the beginning, that there are so many possibilities to get a variety of things for free. As an example, essential free plastic bags while shopping is generally accepted as standard. In Russia you have usually to carry a supply whenever go shopping otherwise you need to pay for simple plastic bags. Offers such as 'Buy 1 get 1 free' or '3 for the price of 2' always give rise to excitement within customers. Or 'Free gift' if you buy or order goods - it could be a small box of vitamins or a large TV-set. As often as not the 'gift' can be quite useful and fairly expensive when related to the product purchased.

But life in Britain spoils her citizens and even more - it perverts their minds when dealing with broad consumer rights. Some cheeky customers can buy nice clothes for a special occasion and having worn them to a party, or whatever, can them return them back to the shop for a refund. They use such excuses that the item was an unwanted gift, wrong size or colour or poor quality. Some ladies make claims that after several months the seams have burst. Ladies, please, watch your figures!

A recent observation I made was: a couple had a meal in a pub, paid for the meal but then straight away complained to the manager about their dissatisfaction with the food or service. Of course, repayment of the meal is the lesser of two evils for the English pub in terms of reputation and loss of potential customers. However it wouldn't be possible, in Russia, to leave a restaurant claiming a refund for the already eaten beef stroganoff and drunk vodka!

Weather and clothes
While studying the English language one is aware of how much time people in Britain talk about the weather. Surprisingly, it doesn't cause them to react appropriately to the weather or temperature changes. The way local people dress, their clothes do not always match the weather conditions. This is especially prevalent with the younger generation - that bare midriff in winter for example. It is very rare to see English people wear hats even when it's frosty, and it's a common thing to pull their sleeves over their frozen hands instead of using gloves - all in the name of fashion. You can see people in the street wearing sandals even when the temperature is only 5C. I feel always pity looking at babies and toddlers in prams -young parents don't care about uncovered tiny heads, pink hands and bare feet exposed to the cold air.

Passing on from the topic of the weather sense, to the theme of English culture of dress and fashion. May I presume to surmise that proper dress culture does not exist outside of London? The idea of a so-called ' classical English style' that's adored in Russia seems to be no more than regular 'Soviet propaganda'. The average English person turns out looking rather poor and not smart at all. They call such mode of dress as casual. A set of clothes consists of un-ironed and saggy sports shirts - or even two as one short-sleeved one is usually worn over a long-sleeved shirt - plus trousers and, again, sandals with or without socks. Are the socks there maybe to make up the warmth that proper footwear would supply! I would call such a trend in clothing as 'unisex'. Nevertheless there could be an option for so-called 'high fashion' when a classical style black coat has been worn together with pink socks and white trainers. It's clear that there is some regional tendency:- the farther from London the more the British don't care how they look.

Russians take much notice of what they wear and are quite fussy over their appearance and usually dress well. If they come to England they would feel out of place in their smart clothes and would have to buy the 'uniform' of jeans, shirt and sandals to blend in. The English tend to wear these casual clothes for every occasion- to go shopping, to the college, to the pub, to walk the dog or even to go the theatre. So it's not a problem to look like an average British person but it could raise a thought - Am I being myself?

Sanitary facilities Theoretically I completely agree with the idea that while adapting to other cultures, it's important to be aware of traditions and customs and to be positive regarding everyday situations. On broader scale you should be prepared to change your habits. I have tried and have been successful on numerous occasions. But there is still one traditional thing I am not able to get over. This is the deficiency of mixer taps in bathrooms. No one can persuade me that it's better to have chained plugs for the sinks, and wash in dirty water, rather than have mixer taps and wash in clean running water, at the temperature you want.

British people isolate themselves from the rest of Europe, but having spent time visiting foreign countries surely they could appreciate the common sense of using mixer taps. It would appear that some simple achievements of civilisation have not yet been implemented. Once while staying in temporary accommodation I tried to show the obvious convenience of changing single taps to mixer taps by using a rubber tap extension. This was rejected as junk.

Probably Mikhail Zadornov, a Russian satirical writer, was right when he said ' our man' has developed out of poverty and 'their man' stagnated in wealth.

It is impossible to expect that you would feel constant happiness when coming over to other countries and being in alien surroundings. Psychological discomfort dissolves as adjustments to the new circumstances take place. This period of change is some kind of trial, the experience we feel when we perceive a new language, people and different cultures. Also it is an understanding of ourselves and a discovery of something new - in our own language and the culture of our homeland. But if you suddenly notice that you are getting over critical towards your new surroundings, maybe it's time to take a trip back home to experience the reverse 'culture shock'!

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Valentina Walker

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