When people from the developed, wealthy world visit countries in Africa, Southeast Asia or South America, they often gird themselves for an experience of culture shock: a psychological response to a different, strange milieu, which can be frightening and threatening. The extreme poverty of developing countries, the tumult and filth, the dysfunctional authorities and service providers – these are all liable to evoke a harsh reaction.
Seasoned travelers, however, know that in many cases, the shock actually occurs after the return home. It’s precisely the return to frenetic everyday activity, the checkout lines at the supermarket, the time-clock to punch at work and the flood of telephone messages that are experienced as the real shock.
This a reaction that psychologists call “the shock of re-entry” or “reverse culture shock,” and it’s characteristic of people who have spent a significant amount of time in a different cultural milieu, on their return to their regular environment. In other variations, it appears among soldiers who have come home from the battlefield, or people who have recently experienced situations of crisis and chaos.
After returning to the workplace and school following the relaxation of the lockdown and the restrictions aimed at curbing the coronavirus, many people are now experiencing the latter variety of shock. Oddly, the shock of returning is sometimes greater than that of confronting an emergency situation. An article appearing in The New York Times early this month focused on people who don’t actually want to go back to the office. Many of them are now experiencing depression, anxiety and weariness – and not necessarily because they’re afraid of becoming infected by the virus. “Just walking from the parking lot to my office I feel like I could be sick,” one interviewee said. “It’s that bad.”
Many working people have discovered that the trip to the office and back robs them of too much time, and that they are actually more efficient when working remotely from home.
But it’s not just that. Psychiatrist Josef Hättenschwiler, head of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety and Depression in Zurich, noticed an interesting phenomenon: During the pandemic, the media have created the impression that large numbers of people need psychological assistance due to the pressure and anxiety they feel, but in fact the number of those seeking such aid fell sharply. Society turned out to be more resilient than had been expected.
In an interview at the end of April with the newspaper Neue Züricher Zeitung, Hättenschwiler explained that at the start of the crisis, “Everyday worries and hardships were perceived as negligible in view of the immediate physical threat.” But when the infection curve flattened out, the fears resurfaced. Furthermore, in the competitive, demanding world around us, many hoped secretly that certain challenges they faced – exams, projects, tenders – would be scrapped in light of the catastrophe. Within a few weeks, however, it turned out that the world was still intact – as were the inescapable demands and expectations.
The shelves in the psychology and self-help sections of libraries are filled with volumes promising to enable people to overcome reverse culture shock: “How to Survive Reverse Culture Shock,” “The Art of Coming Home,” “The Re-entry Roadmap.” Naturally, the situation created in recent weeks is also engendering a flood of experts who hope to score big by advising the troubled masses who are going back to the office, and by explaining how to improve one’s performance after the period of confusion and collapse of familiar reality.
Even before we delve into the model of the late Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg that describes the four stages of culture shock, and attempt to differentiate between “honeymoon” and “adjustment” – it’s worthwhile to ponder the threatening experience of returning to one’s familiar routine. Unusual moments of this kind reveal how demanding and taxing our everyday existence is, and how grinding life in 21st-century civilization can be.
Almost a century ago, in his essay “Civilization and its Discontents,” Freud noted the distress and the tremendous psychological burden that a civilized existence inflicts on modern man. He rejected the conventional viewpoint that people who live in modern, liberal societies are freer than their forebears. The subjugation of the forces of nature and the establishment of rational social institutions have not made us happier.
Freud posited that civilization is based on the suppression of impulses. The emergence of cultural frameworks had the effect of imposing restrictions on freedom that heighten distress and misery. Social suffering only increased, causing the civilized person to become ever more neurotic.
That analysis, originating in early-20th-century Vienna, is no less valid in the current century. The world of work, made up of innumerable reviews, tenders and attendance reports, is only becoming more corrosive. The imposition of discipline mostly devolves upon the individual himself, who is required to streamline his work and maximize his capabilities. And the psychological exertion is not confined to the workplace; it spills into everyday life as well. It’s not necessarily the commute to the office that is tiring; it’s the daily work of self-cultivation and self-maintenance in terms of one’s health, grooming and psychological outlook.
End of surrealism
The demands to maintain one’s appearance, health and fitness are constantly on the rise. The manufacturers of cosmetics, nourishing creams and toothpaste boast that their products are more effective than anything known in the past. But that effectiveness, it turns out, does not save time. The average time invested in self-grooming is constantly rising.
To the effort invested in cultivating one’s skin and hair we must add time for maintaining our physical fitness and for consuming healthful food. A study conducted in the United States showed that between 1965 and 2003, the average time each week that was spent on self-care and maintenance rose by 30 minutes. Women invested more time grooming themselves than men.
Often, the effort involved in self-cultivation is covert. But the ongoing, psychological attempt to meet society’s emotional demands also involves covert suffering. One of the typical psychological “plagues” that afflicts the young generation in our time is the tendency to please others and curry favor. These are yet other causes of debilitating misery.
In the lockdown period, we enjoyed a certain decline in these demands. The emergency brought tension and anxiety to many areas of life, but also a relaxation of discipline in other spheres. Some workplaces lowered their demands, and society in general, too, was more forgiving toward types of behavior that under normal circumstances would raise eyebrows. As in other crisis situations, the coronavirus pandemic wove together both punctiliousness and reckless abandon.
The surreal situation we’ve been experiencing is fading fast. Now we are being required to go back to ticking like clocks. The return to normality is also the return of the normal – of the demand for behavior that’s considered normative. But for many people, the normative is comparable to a cruel straitjacket.