I moved houses three times in the last year. All up I calculated that we travelled 4,923km up and down the east coast of Australia and were in the car for about 57hrs. This is perhaps made more impressive by the fact that the first (and longest) leg was done in the middle of summer in a car with no air conditioning. Although this probably sounds like a horrific nightmare considering the temperatures of a Queensland summer, I actually quite enjoy travelling in Australia. Watching the scenery gradually change from lush tropical rainforest to scrubby desert and then again to temperate eucalyptus forest is really quite amazing. It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of a country that is so huge and diverse.
It was only after I’d been in Sydney (our most recent home) for a few weeks and was reflecting on one of the questions in an AccessTruth tutorial that I realised it was not only the flora and fauna that was changing around me. The assignment question was about communication and asked you to think carefully about the culture in your own country. On the surface, Australia appears very homogenous when it comes to culture, despite our famous multiculturalism. In the United States and the UK it is fairly easy to tell the differences between someone from Alabama and Boston or from Edinburgh and Essex for example, and I’m not just referring to accent: values and traditions will be very different and easy to spot in many cases. In contrast it would be very hard for me to tell from a short interaction if someone is from Cairns or Perth (5,253km apart) without directly asking them.
What I realised however was that this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any cultural differences in Australia, just that they are not quite as obvious on the surface. One thing that made me consider this was a question in a tutorial about non-verbal communication in people that you interact with. I have particularly noticed a big difference in this in the part of Sydney we live in as opposed to where we used to live in Cairns. In the day to day of running errands and interacting on a very shallow level with people on public transport and in shops it is obvious that people are much more closed off down here. They don’t seem to smile as much, they don’t want you to stop and have a chat (something that I actually appreciate, being a bit shy myself). What really made me take note of this difference, however, was that some people seemed quite pleasantly surprised when I made the effort to smile at them and say, “Thank you, Have a nice day” etc. This is a very limited example and one that you can probably find in any country when you compare a more rural area to a big centre, in fact I noticed this in Asia when I travelled outside of the city I was in after living there for a few weeks. But I do think there is a marked difference in the culture of cities in Australia, although it’s not always one that you can see without really absorbing into the community.
The best way that I can define it is that when you go somewhere that you completely understand culturally, you just feel totally comfortable. When I drive back into my hometown of Newcastle everything seems familiar. I know the place like the back of my hand; I know the nicknames for places and the local jokes, I know where to go and where not to and everything just feels easy. The fact that I only live an hour and a half drive away now and don’t feel any of those things here just goes to show how subtle cultural differences can be and how difficult they can be to absorb.
So what does this mean when you put it into the context of trying to communicate cross-culturally and live and work in another- totally different- culture? I suppose it would be easy to let it overwhelm you, for you to become terrified of leaving the only place in the world where you feel comfortable and in control. But if you can come to terms with the fact that you may never feel totally at home somewhere, things tend to become easier I think, and a whole world of fascinating new ideas and traditions to learn opens up before you. Rather than taking the view that you will always be out of your depth, you can realise that you will gradually be able to touch the bottom, and even though there will always be things going on around you that you may not understand, the challenge of learning them can be a joy and not a terrifying chore.