June 23, 2015

Culture Shock Lessons from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial


What can we learn about culture shock from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial?“An alien from outer space lands on another planet.” That’s how many of us expats and foreigners feel when in another country – it’s like an out–of-body experience. So many things are different, and we have to relearn all the things we thought we knew … all over again! Life in another country, in many cases is nothing short of feeling like an alien on another planet.

Here is a list of lessons I learnt about culture shock from the movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial:
  1. Others should be sensitive to the fact that we are different and do not understand everything. Elliott, the boy who finds, befriends, and becomes the guardian of E.T., is, from the first moment of meeting, aware that this “being” is from somewhere else and doesn’t know how to cope in his temporary home.Question to ask ourselves: Being a host national, what can we do to help newcomers and foreigners (be they tourists, temporary or permanent residents) feel comfortable and safe?
  2. Openness to new experiences E.T. may be scared, and he certainly wants to ‘phone home,’ but he tries to learn about his environment and experiment with the things in it to find something he understands and can relate to.
    Question to ask ourselves: As a foreigner in a new land, are we really open to new experiences or do we just hope it is the way it always has been where we came from? How does this affect our openness to new experiences?
  3. Learning a new language E.T. has to learn to communicate. Somehow he picks up English very fast, and says “E.T. phone home.” Of course, it’s not a complete sentence, but it doesn’t matter. He is able to learn something to communicate to his host culture friends in a language they can comprehend.
    Question to ask ourselves: How willing are we to learn a new language? If we already know the language of our hosts, are we willing to adjust our way of talking to be better understood by locals or in diverse, international crowds?

    Points 2 and 3 can be seen in this clip:
  4. Looking for the familiar Since E.T. is on another planet, living in another culture, and everything feels abnormal, he looks for anything in the environment that he can relate to. The funniest scene was when Elliot and his siblings dressed E.T. up as a ghost to take him trick-or-treating and he saw another kid dressed as Yoda. When E.T. saw Yoda, he went a little crazy seeing something remotely familiar and started saying “Home. Home. Home.”
    Question to ask ourselves: When away from home, and everything is different, and it seems like we are on another planet. What do we see, feel, taste, or hear that is ‘homely’ or ‘like home’? Do those things keep us from truly experiencing and understanding our host culture?

  5. People from other cultures have different skills/talents E.T. has talents that beings from his host culture don’t have. He can light up his finger, make things fly, and he seems too quick at learning new languages.
    Question to ask ourselves: What kind of skills or talents do people from other countries or cultures living in your neighborhood have? How can you find out? How can you help them to showcase their talents? How can their talents help the entire community to flourish? How does their approach to life differ and how can we learn from each other?
  6. Others are eager to learn about us, but sometimes at an arm's length like a science experiment. E.T. is hunted by NASA because he’s a foreigner, an alien. But, no one really wants to ‘get to know him’. They just want to ‘collect him’ as a trophy to show the other scientists. Also, people are a little afraid if this ‘being’ is safe to be around. Will they get sick, die, or have something weird happen to them if they touch him or he breathes on them? Though they are enamored and curious about him, they really don’t want to interact with him in a deep, meaningful way to ‘get the information they need.’
    Question to ask ourselves: Do you know people who want to hang out with foreigners just to look cool or get a ‘higher status’ but at the end of the day, really want no meaningful connection with them? Besides encouraging self-segregation (which leads to misunderstanding between cultures and sub-cultures) between cultural groups, what else can this behavior encourage?
  7. “He communicates through Elliott. Elliott feels his feelings.”Elliot’s brother tells this to the NASA people when they ask him how E.T. communicates with them. Coming from a different place, it’s not always easy to communicate with the host culture in the way that they understand and relate to, even if it is the same language. And, in this case, for E.T., everything, even down to basic things like wearing or not wearing clothes, was different.
    Question to ask ourselves
    : Have you ever met someone you couldn’t ‘talk’ to, but, yet you communicated better with them than anyone you ever talked to? What was that experience like? How would you describe it to others?
  8. Bridging cultures comes through true and authentic connections. In the end, what brings E.T. back to life? It is Elliot’s care for E.T. and also the fact that Elliot understands E.T.’s energy and non-verbal language. Yes, it’s a Hollywood movie, but this lesson applies to real life and real relationships as well.
    Question to ask ourselves: Have you ever had a friendship with someone totally different than you? How were they different? How do you think you both bridged that gap to make an authentic, deep connection?
Have you watched E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial? What other lessons about culture shock, acceptance, understanding, and relationships did you learn? Please feel free to share below in the comments section.

Photo credit: ladybugbkt@flickr. Used under creative commons.

Jennifer Kumar is Managing Director of Authentic Journeys. She provides training and coaching for expats working in the US with Americans

Chris Sufi is a freelance editor who lives in Bangalore, India. Her personal interest in language and communication inspires her to contribute through proofreading and editing. She can be contacted here.   

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