Global Culture Shock

Culture shock refers to the reaction of someone who, being placed in a new and unfamiliar environment, realizes they have lost all the familiar signs and symbols that help them understand social situations. The disorientation and anxiety which naturally follow can lead to many behavioral and emotional changes in response. Symptoms of culture shock include:

  • Wanting to withdraw from people,
  • Sleeping or eating too much or too little,
  • Feeling physically ill from the emotional stress,
  • Reluctance to leave the house to socialize,
  • Sense of dread or fear when going out,
  • Excessive drinking,
  • Extreme concern or even paranoia over sanitation,
  • Lethargy, depression, loss of focus,
  • Hyper-irritability, inappropriate hostility and angry outbursts,
  • Generally abnormal mood swings,
  • Wishing you were somewhere else.

I have spent much of the last two years abroad and indeed the whole point of this blog was to share some of my experiences while traveling. And it’s true, I have experienced some elements of culture shock. But when I think about what has been most shocking about the last two years, it has nothing to do with France.

Every human on planet earth has for the last two years been exposed to the ultimate culture shock of all: I will call it “Covid Culture.” Without ever needing to travel anywhere, we all one day woke to find ourselves in a world unrecognizable. And I am certain if we were to ask any random person of the 8 billion on earth they could readily identify having experienced some of the symptoms above as consequence.

Covid Culture is the culture which on first arrival appeared alien to all existing cultures. No matter how different each of those may have been from the others, this culture stood Foreign to them all. Indeed, its essential features were precisely those which stand in contrast to the shared human elements of all the rest.

Covid Culture had as its aim the curtailment of all collective human activities, though of course there remained a few biological imperatives that could not be cancelled. Babies continued to be born; but at least we could keep the father from being present at the birth, or the grandparents from seeing their grandchildren for years on end. People continued to die, and indeed that was the whole concern to begin with; but at least we could ensure the dying spent their last moments of life bereft of family at their bedside.

Besides those two mileposts of life, I can’t think of any others that weren’t summarily dispensed with. Weddings, graduations, holidays be they religious or secular, church, school, work in the office, coffee on the terrace, walks in the park with a friend, singing, and finally nothing less than the human face itself – all disappeared completely.

MTA signs on the New York City subway, summer 2020

It didn’t matter if you were a rice farmer in China, a teenage girl in Kalamazoo, the captain of a nuclear submarine, or Her Majesty the Ever-Loving Queen of God’s Own England, Covid came to your door, usurped your culture, and slapped a mask on your filthy pie hole.

Who could fail not to be shocked?

Nothing was found to be so sacred it couldn’t be jettisoned. The Catholic church is one of the longest enduring institutions on earth, and one of the slowest historically to adopt any kind of change. And yet I have noticed some recent shifts:

Chaplain Luis María Padilla, Venezuela, 1962
Eglise Saint-Maurice, Annecy, 2021

From risking a life to deliver a blessing, to withholding a blessing so as not to risk a germ, a lot has changed.

If the sacred went, so of course did the trivial. In America people greet each other by shaking hands. In France la bise is the custom. The Inuit have kunik. It doesn’t matter what variation exists in your corner of the world, if it involved proximity to another human being, it became verboten. If you dared go outside and stand within whatever distance was allowed from another soul, you were lucky if you got an elbow bump.

Merkel and Johnson gracefully illustrate the new elbow bump, G7 Summit, 2021

I had an acute moment of culture shock a couple months ago when I was walking past the Burger King in my little French town. It could have been anything that triggered it, but probably because this restaurant is an American symbol that sticks out, it caught my attention and started me thinking. And what I thought was, “You know, it’s strange, but if I wanted to eat a mediocre hamburger at this establishment (I didn’t), I will first have to prove to the teenager behind the counter that I have had certain newly developed genetic chemicals inserted into my bodily tissues a minimum of three times.”

Now whatever might be the worthy merits of this policy, let’s be honest: that is not how the world used to work. What an odd set of preconditions to enter Burger King! This was a new and alien practice, but it was not French – the same requirement was the norm in cities across America and around the world.

If I could travel back in time to 2019, what do you suppose people would think about my descriptions of the future? “Wait guys, that’s not all! Once you get in-side the restaurant, so long as you remain seated…” but no one would have heard the rest of my story about what The Science has definitely discovered, because they would already have been dialing the insane asylum.

Ironically the fact that no one is calling the insane asylum today has often made me feel I’m losing my mind.

It will be no surprise to hear that I did not like many aspects of the last two years. But who did? Everyone was in agreement that life was become unpleasant. The disagreements came about because some generally accepted as necessary the various means employed to manage the crisis, if nevertheless inconvenient; where others found the rules and restrictions excessive and misguided. Bickering broke out over every dinner table on earth, and I must sadly admit that I myself was the instigator of more than one heated exchange. These arguments accomplished nothing other than to increase the existing “hyper-irritability” of everyone not already succumbed to sweet death from Covid.

“Art of Quarantine” campaign by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture, spring 2020

I have tried not to write much on this topic since I know everyone is tired of hearing about it, myself most of all. It has however been the defining feature of life as I’ve experienced it in France. But nothing lasts forever (or anyway let’s hope), and a few weeks ago France finally lifted all pandemic-related restrictions. At the stroke of midnight on March 13th, the old world quietly and abruptly returned.

Afterwards I walked into my corner bakery and bought my usual baguette from Mme. Dangreaux. It was the first time I had ever seen her face, and I have been frequenting her shop since August 2020.

Later I returned to one of the Meetups where expats can mix with local French people. I hadn’t been in months since these events are held at a café, a public place where my presence had been forbidden the same as at Burger King. Midway through the evening a woman I know, a friend I hadn’t seen since Christmas, came to my table to say hello. Even as a graceless American the thought did cross my mind that I should probably stand to greet her, but as I had already waved from across the room earlier, and as others around me were talking, I decided that sufficient preliminaries had already been concluded.

For some reason she knelt on the floor besides me. “This is terrible!” I thought, “we should really pull up another chair for this poor rabbit.” (That is what they call unfortunates in France.)

I turned to look for an empty seat, and that is when I felt her hair against my cheek. Qu’est-ce qui se passe?! I had no idea, but I could only assume this woman wanted to whisper sweet nothings in my ear.

Seeing no chairs I turned back and now she leaned around awkwardly to my other cheek. Hein?! On fait quoi, au juste?

So transpired my first ever la bise in France. It ended with at least two people embarrassed, and one insulted at the other’s non-collaboration. I guess culture can surprise you both coming and going.

Good riddance then to the last two years! Let’s hope this topic doesn’t come up again anytime soon.