Many years ago I was fresh out of college, newly married and the mother of a one- year-old little girl. A large insurance company announced its relocation intents – from New York City to Charlotte – and I applied for one of the technical analyst jobs. I was excited to be one of the core team hired, but also anxious that I would spend one summer commuting back and forth from Charlotte to NYC. It’s important to note that I grew up in Hickory, N.C. where we did not have an escalator in town until I was in twelfth grade. I thought the move to Charlotte for college was huge, so the idea of living in New York City by myself wasn’t something I had ever even considered.
I accepted the job and bought new luggage and business attire. I kissed my husband and daughter goodbye and boarded the plane with two other co-workers the first Sunday night in June. We winged our way to the Big Apple where we landed at Newark, then boarded a train to Hoboken. The company put me in a one-bedroom apartment with a gas stove (electricity was all I knew and the idea of using a match to light a stove was terrifying), no air conditioning (so I heard all the street sounds below), and four flights of stairs to navigate. Each day we boarded a train, somehow ending up in the basement of the World Trade Center where we then rode up the steepest escalators I had ever seen.
I was young and homesick, experiencing a “rhetorical interruption described by Arnett, Fritz and Bell as when ”we recognize that we are not participants, but onlookers in a much larger world than we had earlier imagined.” (Arnett, Fritz & Bell, 2009, p. 164) And what an interruption it was! Nothing was the same – mothers pushed babies in strollers onto the escalators – something that no one would ever do back home – there were signs warning against such dangerous action. People pushed and shoved each other, all the different smells on the street were overpowering, the traffic was insane, bomb scares in the building were common place, and it seemed more hot and humid than a Carolina summer. In short, I was miserable.
Looking back on the experience, especially in light of this communications course, I realize the situation could have been much improved if the company, or myself, had recognized our common ground. As it happened, I was a fish out of water or, as Arnett, Fritz and Bell say, “When the routine fails, we find ourselves in shock, missing a cultural background that had previously given tacit meaning to our communicative lives.” (Arnett, Fritz and Bell, 2009. P. 162) I was experiencing culture shock. Our textbook says it’s “a natural reaction to the unexpected and unfamiliar, and needs a thoughtful response; simply giving free rein to our distress is no loner a helpful response to changes in the expected.” (Arnett, Fritz and Bell, 2009. P. 162) Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to process such an unfamiliar environment. It wasn’t that I had been sheltered or spoiled, I simply did not have the life experience to deal with the situation in a positive way.
My immediate supervisor knew I wasn’t happy, but the company was so busy preparing for the move down south, they didn’t have time to cater to a young, southern girl, who couldn’t recognize a magnificent cultural opportunity when it was staring her in the face. We later learned that the company was actually hesitant to hire anyone in Charlotte to help with the migration south as they were afraid that once we tasted life in NYC, we would never go back. Imagine that – the New Yorkers were so sure their way of life was superior, that it never occurred to them that some folks – most particularly me! – would rather live below the Mason-Dixon line in a less frantic environment. The intercultural communication between us had broken down. Both of us were only thinking of our own situation as Arnett, Fritz and Bell describe, “Intercultural communication ethics keeps before us that there is a before and an after. If ‘I’ am the tree, there may no be noise in the forest when the ‘I’ falls, but there is a forest that will nurture the next tree.” (Arnett, Fritz & Bell, p.161) Those folks did not want to leave their life in the big city, the dwelling place and community of memory that had been established, and they assumed everyone there felt the same way. Though dull in comparison, I missed my life back home.
I made it through the summer by flying home each weekend, and I did okay in the job. But in September, once we were permanently based in Charlotte, I quit the company to spend more time with my child. As our text states, “When we meet life in its patterned cadence, we do not find boredom; we find comfort. Sometimes, we do not recognize the importance of the pattern as comfort until it is no more.” (Arnett, Fritz & Bell, 2009. P. 163.) I missed that pattern. I needed that comfort. As silly as it now sounds, I was not prepared for the intercultural differences I encountered in NYC. If I had it to do over again I would “learn by watching communicative behavior of the Other and resist the initial impulse to tell ‘This is not how we do it at home’ . . .and move from unreflective critique to the role of guest.” (Arnett, Fritz & Bel, 2009, p. 171) I would have learned a lot that summer – but I still may have quit my job come fall!
Arnett, R.C., Fritz, J. M.H, Bell, L. M. (2009) Communications ethics literacy: dialogue and difference. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.