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Culture Shock: How to Cope When You’re Outside Your Comfort Zone

During a business trip to Spain a few years ago, I decided to take a break from the intense 18-hour days I was working and explore the southern coast of the country. Alone in my rental car, I enjoyed the solitude after nearly a week of working very closely with a lot of people. For at least a couple of days I barely spoke to anyone of any culture or in any language.

I stopped briefly at the docks in Cadiz to stare out to sea, left town, climbed a few hills to stare out to sea some more, and threaded my way along the coast at a snail’s pace around the southernmost tip of Spain at Tarifa. As I neared Gibraltar, I made a snap decision to see if I could get on a ferry to Tangier; I had never visited Morocco, and Tangier’s reputation as a haven for artists, outcasts and authors seemed to offer a perfect adventure. Luckily my timing was perfect, and in short notice I was on a boat and on my way.

On the way across, I stared out to sea some more, and figured I was ready to re-enter civilization again in a famous Moroccan city with an exceedingly rich history and exotic reputation.

I wasn’t even completely off the boat when I encountered what I can only describe as an assault on the senses. A horde of hustlers, con men, would-be guides and loiterers descended on me like seagulls on an oyster. They offered to walk me through town, find me a hotel, take me to shops, protect me from thieves and hustlers, you name it, all at no cost — unless I felt it appropriate to pay, of course.

I said “no thank you” in as many ways as humanly possible, until finally I spoke up very firmly: “Sir, I said no thank you.”

His response was swift and direct, yelled loudly as he stormed away. “You are evil, my friend,” he said. “Your face is like poison. Yes, your face is like poison, my friend. Your nose … your nose …” By then I had bolted off and could not hear the multitude of ways he did not like my nose. All I wanted to do was take a walk!

I got about 50 yards along before he was back, making all the same offers. Finally, I stopped walking, turned to him, and said, “Sir, there is something you could do for me, if you would be so kind.”

“Certainly, what can I do?” he asked. “I am sure we can come to an agreement.”

“My hope now is simply to be left alone to take a walk. Can you do this for me?”

His eyes flashed in anger, but then he relented; I had asked politely and directly, and disarmed the situation. He shook his head, but finally said, “Go ahead, have a good day.” I thanked him, and he walked away.

The moral of the story? I was completely unprepared for the explosion of culture shock that a short ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar precipitates. It took me a few minutes to get my feet under me, but my solution was to turn the relationship on its head — instead of letting my pursuer suggest what he could do for me (ultimately for pay), which forced me to say “no” repeatedly and to seem the unappreciative and stingy foreigner, I suggested to him what he could do for me.

As I walked around Tangier, I encountered more of the same, if not at the same level of intensity. Invitations to have some mint tea in a rug shop turned into 30-minute pitches to make a shipment to my house for a very good price, which was finally revealed at $13,000. Eye contact with street merchants led to offers of paid tour guide service. Ultimately I decided to stay the night in a hotel, and went running the next morning — which led to offers to lead me to my hotel, on the assumption that I was lost. My walk to a famous cafe for a cup of coffee precipitated offers to lead me on a walk to a famous cafe for a cup of coffee.

However, with each new encounter, I perfected the art of asking only for those things that I hoped to have happen and of never saying “no” outright. When a rug merchant tried to lure me into his shop, I entered briefly and said that the rugs were beautiful, but explained that I was here in Tangier for a very short time and hoped to see much more of the city by the end of the day. When a kid in the street offered to take me somewhere, I told him where I was going and how to get there, and said thanks very much but I was sure to make it.

Venturing into Tangier unawares was a little bit like going into a Mexican border town thinking it is San Diego — but without the tequila, and definitely without the tranquilo. Luckily, there are ways to avoid those first 10 minutes of considerable discomfort I encountered. Here are some tips for adjustments you may want to make to steel yourself against culture shock, whether mild or extreme.

1. Know what to expect.

Some foreknowledge of what I would encounter upon disembarking would have gone a long way toward easing my exit off the barge from Spain. I could see northern Africa from the docks in Spain, but was not quite aware of how different the world would be across the water.

There are countless resources that offer a look into the cultural differences from one country to the next, even a short boat ride away. Guidebooks are the most obvious starting point, as most contain extensive information about the manners and mannerisms of the locals in most locales. For example, if you do a search on “Tangier, Morocco” on the Lonely Planet Web site, this is one of the first paragraphs you find:

“The brigade touristique (tourist police) has cracked down on Tangier’s legendary hustlers, but the city is not altogether hassle free. If you take it head on and learn to handle the hustlers, you’ll find it a likable, lively place.”

This clearly would have prepared me for what lay just ahead when I disembarked the ferry.

2. Put on your Traveler cap.

As I entered Tangier, I was wearing my “Logy Sightseer” cap when I really needed to be wearing a “Tested Traveler” cap. Knowing what to expect, and especially putting myself into the right mindset to deal with it off the bat, would have made a big difference in my first 10 minutes in Tangier.

My culture shock came more from not having my feet under me than from anything that “happened” to me — I lived in New York City for 11 years when I was younger, and much of what I encountered in the subways during that time differed very little from my first encounters in Tangier. Had I pulled myself out of the cultural stupor I had indulged on the boat ride across and activated the same wits I employed on a daily basis in New York, it would have been easy sailing once I hit land in Morocco.

3. Check your assumptions.

When visiting a new country, particularly a less developed country, you need to revise your assumptions about who’s who and how things work. For example, I hardly think of myself as a wealthy person, let alone a filthy rich person. However, when I enter a country like Morocco, “rich” is quite possibly an accurate descriptor of my situation as compared to the people I meet. I can afford a flight to Europe, and a car to the coast, and a boat ride to Africa, and an international cell phone to tell my friends all about it. And I can afford to spend all that money in one shot over a few days merely to unwind a bit before heading home and going back to work. The folks I encountered on the boat ramp might not ever be able to afford any one of these, perhaps in a lifetime.

4. Remember you are in control.

That said, you do not specifically owe it to every stranger that you meet to share your wealth with them without thought or merit. When the man in the anecdote above finally left me alone, I did not feel obliged to give him money to do so, as he had very nearly physically attacked me, had definitely done so verbally, and was exceedingly unpleasant, unhelpful and lacking in any consideration for me as a person. He was merely trying to browbeat me into handing over money.

As my stay went on, I chose on several occasions to pay folks who did offer assistance that was both welcome and useful, in amounts I thought warranted by the situation. Sometimes you get these right, sometimes not quite right, but if you are trying to be forthright and honest in your dealings without being a mark or dupe, you probably won’t be far off. (For ideas on what is expected for tipping overseas, check out Tips for Tipping Abroad.)

5. Get help.

While researching this story, I checked our site for reports by fellow travelers, and found this Tangier trip report by Linda Borow. Linda took the initiative of finding a tour guide for her cruise stop in Tangier — she planned ahead and hired someone to offer the very same service that the dock phantoms were hustling tourists to do, and Linda’s experience was the polar opposite of mine as a result.

Your hotel may be able to offer considerable help here, as they may have a concierge service that can help you navigate your first minutes in a new place, or at least provide some solid instructions to help you get your feet in those first minutes that opportunist folks might try to sweep them out from under you.

6. Roll with the punches.

Two hundred steps into my visit, I very nearly turned around and got back on the boat, never to return. However, once I got into a rhythm in Tangier, I found it a fascinating and very satisfying place in which to let myself drift and sway among the cultural currents and differences in play. This is in no small part why Tangier became the haunt of countless artists and writers, of international persons of mystery, and of your reporter — at least for a few intense and ultimately enriching days.

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