Social Connections and Cultural Shock

I have lived in a city on an average for 2 years in the last 2 decades of my work life. When compared to our previous generation, we are traveling and moving across cities and continents, a lot more. I maintain a spreadsheet to help me remember my past addresses. I don’t know when I will need them to fill a visa application or a background check.

If you move to a different city or even a different community in the same city you will experience a significant change in your social connections. These days people relocate often (the corona-driven restrictions will be temporary I guess), they have colleagues from different countries or different continents altogether. There is also an opportunity to stay in touch with your friends over longer duration and distances, thanks to social media. As the cliché goes, humans are social animals. A lot of our behavior patterns and emotions are designed to make us successful as a tribe. One of the hypotheses for our larger brain is the need to track and manage social connections. Dunbar’s research shows our brains have a capacity to maintain a tribe size of approximately 150. Social connection is one of the key needs for your mental health. How are we going to manage the much larger pool of social connections and the longer duration of those connections facilitate by technology? We have not evolved for this change which happened quite recently. You already see your friends taking a “fast” from FB to keep their sanity.

“Using the equations that emerged from this line of work, Dunbar was able to estimate what the largest effective, coherent social group should be for each kind of primate, based on its neocortex ratio. His analysis suggests that for humans the number is around 150, the largest for any primate. This is referred to as “Dunbar’s number,” and it turns out that a striking number of human organizations tend to operate at around that size. For instance, village size, estimated from as long ago as 6000 BC and as recently as the 1700s, converges around the 150 mark. Ancient and modern armies also organize around units of about 150 people.”

Lieberman, Matthew D.. Social: Why our brains are wired to connect (pp. 32-33). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.”

If you move across countries and cultures, the change is not only limited to your social connection, but you also get immersed in a different culture. This is experienced as a “cultural shock”. Depending on the duration of this change, you go through a roller coaster ride which may start on a positive/negative note depending on whether you initiated the change or you reluctantly signed up for it. But both the disturbance to social and cultural connections that we experience frequently can be an opportunity. In addition to the typical, experience new culture, food, and make new friends’ prescription, it can help you increase your self-awareness and provides an avenue to develop resilience & flexibility.

Expectations : As you go through cultural change, you experience and become aware of the different expectations from people around you. This can be in terms of maintaining and attending social events and your own expectations from those around you.

Values: The value for time, cleanliness, efficiency, natural resources, and others changes vastly across culture and even within a country. In a city, you may see solar cells, recycle bins everywhere, but in another city in the same country, not so much.

Value of relationships and connections: As you experience the churn in social connections, you can reflect, whom you want to speak to over the large distances and time zone that now separates you? and why?

Boundaries, rules, and constraints: Every “no” and hesitant “yes” can provide us an opportunity to recognize our biases, boundaries, and rules we have. It could be about a travel mode we don’t prefer, a food we resist to enjoy or an inefficiency we can’t tolerate.

As you go through these changes & in some cases challenges, you can develop a neutral, non-judgmental attitude and take the good in each while ignoring the rest.

Note: Thanks Kailash for our interesting conversation which triggered this post.

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