Associate Professor, University of Iowa

Overhead Compartments, Haircuts, and Reverse Culture Shock

Before returning to the U.S., Melissa and I talked about whether or not life in America would feel strange to us. Since Nairobi is a very cosmopolitan city, I didn’t expect much “reverse culture shock,” but I was really curious to see what things would feel different. Now that I’ve been back in America for 24 hours, here are the two things that have felt most (culturally) shocking so far:

1) Halfway through the flight from London to Nairobi, there was a woman struggling with her overhead compartment. I would guess the woman was in her late-30’s. She was fairly petite and was traveling with two boys that had to be younger than 10. I didn’t see why she opened the compartment initially, but I could see from my aisle seat 20 rows back that she could not get it to close back up. Either she wasn’t tall enough to push it all the way up, or the latch was stuck, keeping the lock from catching it in place. Either way, I sat there watching her for a good 30 second before I finally decided to get up and help her. I checked and one of the latches was indeed jammed, so I fixed it and closed the compartment. She said “thanks” and I said “no problem” and went back to my seat. But as I walked back to my seat, I realized that if I were still in Kenya (on a matatu or bus, perhaps), there would have been at least one person (but probably more) to jump up and help her before I got there. Thirty seconds isn’t terribly long, but it’s enough time for anyone sitting in the 20 rows between me and her to respond to her struggle. But this is the West, where unfortunately the bystander effect reigns supreme.

2) This morning, I went to Great Clips to get a haircut. I have to go to a wedding next weeked, and my hair was starting to get a bit out of control. I walked in the door and stepped up to the counter. A friendly woman with scissors in hand backed away from her client and met me at the register. “Hello, welcome to Great Clips.” I said hi. Then she asked, “What’s your phone number?” I blanked for a second, but finally fumbled it out. She rapidly entered the numbers into her computer. Then she asked, “What’s your last name?” I answered. Then “How do you spell that?” I answered, she typed. Then “Have you ever been here before?” I answered, she typed. Then “What’s your address?” I answered, she typed. Then “What’s your first name?” I answered. “How do you spell that?” I answered, she typed. “You can take a seat. There is only one person in front of you, so the wait won’t be long.” I removed the latest copy of “Car & Driver” magazine from an empty seat and sat down exhausted. I felt like I had been assaulted with questions. I used to tell people that Kenya could use a class in organizational communication, since you could go in an office and easily wait for 20-30 minutes with little to no idea of what you’re waiting for. But if you’re not used to it, the efficiency model of most American businesses can feel pretty jarring as well.



1 thought on “Overhead Compartments, Haircuts, and Reverse Culture Shock”

  • Just having returned from a second trip to Europe and back to Kenya in a month, the most abstract thing I can say about the difference in cultures is the degree of mediation between people. Meaning, the spectrum from direct personal interaction to systematic belief in societal mechanism. With the overhead compartment, is this bystander effect or the feeling that it’s the flight attendant’s job to help with this? Especially after the entire dehumanizing process of airport check-in and security. The haircut, what if you had went into a single-owner salon rather than a massive, efficiency driven chain? I see the same very plainly with traffic systems … where in Nairobi you have to be prepared for a direct interaction every second, and can have only limited trust in the rules of the road.

    There’s a capacity for this kind of mediation, and the desire for it, and both contribute to its actualization. At what point does our desire for efficiency and fairness squash our humanity?

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