Our comfort zones are, in a word, comfortable. They’re familiar places we’ve grown accustomed to with environments that are familiar to us. We surround ourselves with the known and the experienced as a way to lull ourselves into contentment because to be comfortable is to feel safe. The world outside our comfort zones is a frightening place full of the unknown and the not-yet-experienced which can feel pretty overwhelming. However, to live in one’s comfort zone is to live a limited lifestyle. Imagine only reading one book or only listening to one song or only watching one movie for your whole life. In an existential sense, this is what living in our comfort zones is. The more you read, listen, and watch, the more you learn. The same way that the more actively you live, the more you will learn about your life and the lives around you.
French novelist Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” Essentially, it’s not the going to new places that broadens our horizons, but rather the new perspectives we gain that widen our scope. Two of the best ways to gain these perspectives are through cross-cultural experiences and culture shock.
Of the two approaches to gaining global perspective discussed in this post, cross-cultural experiences are the less intense way to expand your horizons. As implied by the name, these primarily involve two people of different cultures exchanging information about their respective experiences. As a result, cross-cultural experiences fall into a very broad category. A cross-cultural experience can be something as simple as exchanging food at a potluck or as scary as moving to an entirely different country. As society becomes more globalized, cross-cultural experiences become more readily available. As we experience other cultures, we can learn to spot the aspects that make them unique as well as the facets that they share, and it is in spotting these similarities that we begin to unify as a society.
Culture shock, on the other hand, almost never implies any sense of familiarity. Culture shock is that sense of disorientation and anxiety that comes when experiencing a new, unfamiliar environment for the first time, full of its own sights, smells, language, and people. While this might sound terrifying, culture shock can actually be an extremely beneficial experience to have. Not only do you have the chance to learn about new cultures and new places, but it affords you the opportunity to learn about yourself and learn how to adapt, immerse in a new culture, and emerge a more cultured, experienced person.
Culture shock can also be one of the most beneficial ways to study and learn a new language. If you’re in an unfamiliar environment and are unfamiliar with the language, the only way you’re going to be able to communicate is by learning the language and learning it fast. Think of it as a trial-by-fire Rosetta stone of sorts. Learning a new language is the best way to gain insight into a new culture organically. You can learn about the culture in its native tongue, eliminating the ever-cumbersome language barrier. While bilingualism may seem like the exception rather than the norm, it is estimated that between half and three-fourths of the world’s population is to some degree bilingual. This means that more than four billion people worldwide have the cultural insights that can only be achieved by learning about a culture immersively and without restriction.
So, brush off those cobwebs. Step out of your comfort zone. Gain new perspective. Learn new things. See the world, and maybe even learn a bit about yourself in the process.