TEDxUCLA 2017: Gravity
The embrace of discomfort
Have you ever lived in a foreign country, or moved away from your hometowns? And have you ever dealt with non-Americans?
Most of you live in Los Angeles, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, so chances are that you have. But for those of you who haven’t, well you’re about to, because I’m clearly not from here.
And while interacting with people from other cultures, would you say you felt excited and energized, or challenged and slightly uncomfortable, or maybe all of the above?
What you’ve experienced is pretty usual and totally acceptable and is commonly known as culture shock. Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.
It can take many forms and consists of multiple stages, but it usually starts with the honeymoon, when cultural differences are seen in a romantic light. This is when I first moved to Los Angeles and I only saw palm trees in silhouette against the cherry sky, or when you think that my Greek accent is kind of cute.
But like most honeymoon periods, this stage eventually ends. And this is when things get serious. Excitement gives way to frustration and anger, and small discrepancies feel like major catastrophes, like asking for chips in England and getting back French fries.
Language barriers, stereotypes, but also generation and technology gaps are only a few of the obstacles hindering good communication among people from different backgrounds. Imagine being at your office’s annual Christmas party and being sat next to that lonely kind of misfit tech guy who you’ve never exchanged a “good morning” with before, or visiting Los Angeles from Europe and being on Sunset Boulevard at 1 a.m. with your phone dead only to realize that raising your hand to stop a cab is pointless.
What do you do? You first take a deep breath. And then you adapt.
Now unless you’ve been an international student, a relocated employee, or some sort of cultural sciences expert, you’ve probably never thought of adapting as something you’re dealing with every day. You might have considered it a last resort, a compromise, something we’re forced to do rather than choose to do.
In natural sciences, adaptation is first and foremost a matter of survival. Darwin and his theory of evolution implies that only the organisms that maintain and evolve certain traits in response to the imposed conditions will be the ones able to survive and reproduce.
Bactrian camels, for instance, are a stunning example of resource conservation in response to the imposed conditions. Their two humps are filled with fat, which can be converted into energy and water, and they can forego sweating until their body temperature reaches 100 Fahrenheit.
Humans, in turn, face the same adaptive challenges as all other organisms. It was adaptation to climate change that made tropical people tall and lean, to lose heat, whereas Arctic and mountain people short and white to conserve heat. When it comes to biological evolution, therefore, there’s no question that adaptation is a matter of life and death.
What differentiates us from camels, however, is that we can be conscious about our ability to evolve. We can choose: to resist change and risk becoming obsolete, or we can use our adaptability to grow even stronger. And this decision is not an easy one.
Four years ago, I moved from Greece, a culturally-speaking homogeneous country, to London for my Master’s degree. And I found myself within a class of 38 different nationalities, 38 different cultures, among 120 students. Add this to London’s overall multiculturalism. It was exhilarating, but also extremely stressful, demanding, discomforting, and in the end exhausting.
Suddenly, understanding someone was no longer effortless. Speaking out was no longer safe. Even telling a joke was impossible; I had to explain it. So what was happening to me, and probably to many other students, was that I couldn’t relate to my surroundings the way I did back home. So I had to either find a way to cope with this new situation, or go back.
I decided to stay. And this is when something interesting happened. I started to listen more intently and to articulate my thoughts more precisely, and through this two-way process I was able to rediscover myself.
New environments demand new adapted responses. For instance, I quickly started imitating my surroundings, saying “cheers” to Londoners and “that’s awesome” to Californians.
But how does this help us grow? Well, in a way that we may not even notice, we start seeing things from different perspectives, and that makes us inevitably stretch our horizons. Because when exposed to different worlds, after this initial phase of imitation, we start questioning ourselves.
We start realizing that we don’t know everything, and that consequently there is room for improvement. And this is the key point in the process. That’s when we start to really listen and each conversation becomes a stimulus for change. We gradually develop new routines, challenge our existing points of view, and adopt new and unexpected ways of seeing the world.
It’s a long and laborious process. It surely was for me. But resisting change felt far more painful, and adapting to it turned out to be far more favorable.
And the benefits of adaptation go beyond personal development, beyond overcoming the discomfort of having a non-American colleague, or learning to use the iPad so you can feel closer to your grandchild.
Adaptation is vital to the advancement of an entire community, or even a whole nation. In the United States, in the early 1900s, thousands of people from around the world came to an unfamiliar environment with the sole hope of making their dreams come true. Italian cooks brought their craft to the New World and suddenly, the States became the #1 country in pizza consumption.
And of course this is about much more than pizza or sushi or tacos. The identity of an entire country, as a land of countless possibilities, known the worldwide as the great melting pot, is formed on the basis of individual aspirations being mixed together and adapted to one another in new, previously unexplored ways.
Adaptation is a process, a process of change by which we become better suited to our environment. Camels do it, humans do it, even companies do it all the time.
When I was working as a communications consultant and researcher in London, I saw that the companies which were able to maintain their edge over time were the ones willing to change. And this could mean adjusting their products to the needs of different markets, or refreshing their visual identity to look modern, or incorporating new technologies to improve their customers’ experience.
But what if, instead of waiting for our environment to force us to change, we could stimulate our own growth? What if next time we go to work we try interacting more with our colleagues, even if making small talk is not our greatest strength?
Major Silicon Valley companies have already adopted unusual techniques to spark personal interaction and maximize chance encounters in the workspace, like putting all their employees into a single mile-long room, as Facebook have done in their headquarters, because they’re convinced that some of the best ideas and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions where people from across the company collide and adapt.
Diversity and adaptation can be challenging, and at times we’ve seen them bringing out the worst in us. They can lead us to be fearful of the other, angry, even hostile toward each other. But they may also bring out the best in us. And if we want to really defend diversity and adaptation, we need to accept them, not just as inevitable natural processes but also as two very conscious paths, because it is a choice to be adaptable and open to diversity, especially here in the United States. Especially right now.
So don’t be afraid of change, in all the forms it can take. Be ready to embrace the hostility of the buzzing city, the exotic quirks of your neighbors, the addition of new colleagues to your team every other month. Maybe even go and sit next to that lonely kind of misfit tech guy who you’ve never exchanged a “good morning” with before at your office’s next Christmas party.
Do not be afraid of the changes that happen to yourself or to the environment around you. Because it is through these chains that you will see yourself evolve, adapting to this all but static world.
Do that, sit back, and watch this world change in its turn. After all, it will be thanks to you. Thank you.