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June 18, 2003

Culture note to prospective students

This is a copy of a mail I wrote today to a mailing list of Indians who were about to come to the US and join USC for Graduate/Undergrad studies:

[During my experience of 2 years in the US, my thought process and understanding of the world changed dramatically, and the basic purpose of this mail is give you a head-start into the broadening of perspective that took took some time to get to me.]

Everybody knows that there are cultural differences between India and America...but knowing only that is not enough.

One must know them in "some detail", and also an idea about "why" they exist in the first place.

Not knowing enough is a source of lot of problems - many people just dont like the things out here for a long time (months, years) after coming here and keep hating the US and US culture. (not all of it, but several aspects of it)

Yes, thats Culture shock for you, even if the person is not ready to accept that he is going through it.

The first thing one must know is: (my theory) Culture is just a "local" maxima. Ways of doing things in a culture are modified slowly to go towards a local maxima, and *not* towards a global maxima. And Global Maxima is very hard to define and identify -- the very definitions of good and bad change as you cross cultures, and a global maxima (absolute morality and perfect society), in fact, probably does not exist even in theory.

In other words, an *open mind* is the most important thing you need when you move to a significantly different culture - in this case - you are moving from a collectivistic relationship-based lawless (almost) society to an individualistic acheivement-based law-abiding society. Just remember this sentence always - "What is right and what is wrong was told to you by your culture - they are not *absolute*, they are *relative* to your culture."

Agree with this and you are more than half way through.

Now you need to understand what a culture shock is and what are the different phases for that - read this -

And this, a little smaller than the above:

Then you need to read what exactly are the differences in the cultures.

These are slightly bigger than the above, but important:
(on the link page, look at lower right - you will see a heading "Cultural Adjustment", read the four (small) pages linked from there)

There's one more - this one's a little boring, but read as much as you want -

This link is optional - it talks about business related cultural differences, but the information present is huge.

If you have read much of the above links, then you are going to have a better time in the USA.....I guarantee you!!

For the people who have become interested in this topic, here's some more material - rather more formal/academic - its about a study by Hofstede(1983) which postulates that differences in cultures can be understood in terms of five parameters and he in fact measured the five parameters for lots of countries.
explains the parameters; the actual scores on parameters of various countries are here:

USA is the most individualistic country in the world according to his measurements.

Then there's this interesting study on the link between corruption and collectivism - yes, its what you expected - collectivist countries have a higher rate of corruption than individualistic countries:

Hehe, they even calculate that there is a correlation of 0.7 between collectivism and corruption.

I cant possibly believe that you are following this email upto this line. Go check your mail (again).



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