Thursday, August 28, 2008

It's Thursday, it's rainy.

Its been a while since my last post. So much for my spontaneous resolution to write everyday.

I spent the majority of this fine August trapsing around Europe doing a bit of subtle communication research.

It just so happened last my last week of summer courses fell on the same week that two of my dear friends were getting Slovakia. I wasted no time worrying about skipping out of finals. Finals happen every semester. An excuse to go to Slovakia only comes around...well, probably just this once. So as I traveled by bus, plane, train, car, and foot to the small town of Dolny Kubin, Slovakia. It took almost three whole days to journey there from Minneapolis and I had my nose in my Communications Theory book for most of the journey. We had been studying intercultural communication right before my departure, specifically uncertainty management theory.

Uncertainty management theory attempts to explain why and how people identify and adjust to different cultural surroundings and behavior. The theory claims that people will attempt to define their surroundings and if they are unable to do so, will possibly clam up and refuse to try to communicate at all.

I began to see this theory take shape as I finally landed (after eight and a half grueling hours in coach) in Stockholm, Sweden. I was greeted by "beware of pickpockets" signs with images of a masked bandit nabbing someone's wallet out of their back pocket. I wasn't sure how seriously I should take this threat. I had never been in this airport. Was someone going to rob me blind? I immediately began a mental inventory of all my valueables. Passport? Check. Wallet? Check. Camera? Nope, couldn't find it. Those pickpockets must have already worked their magic, I had decided. My heart rate immediatly increased when I noticed that my cell phone had no bars at all. No service. No communication to the US at all. I was officially, uncertain. My management of the situation was to completely freak out. I had never been so unearthed before. I was suddenly hyperaware of the lack of English being spoken and of my uncertainty about my bags and my ride from the next airport. What if they couldn't find me? What I was stuck in Vienna for a week?

My worries began to snowball into panic. I couldn't find my camera, I coudldn't find my phone and I was convinced that everyone was lying to me. This was surely uncertainty management failure. I was not able to isolate any of my worries or reason with my illogical fear. I compeletly shut down. Once I gave up on figuring out the payphone, I sat down at my gate for the full hour and a half layover without speaking to anyone.

About 2 hours later, I finally landed in Vienna. My ride was of course waiting for me as planned and he got me to the correct train with no major problems to speak of. From that point on, I decided to pay attention to the pattern of my thoughts. I found myself trying to generalize every peculiarity I noticed as a general truth. For example, all people in Slovakia and skinny, all bathrooms in Slovakia are dirty, etc. I was totally aware that all the generalizations my mind was dishing out, but I was also consciously aware that they may not be true, but just a defense mechanism. It was like my conscious mind was ripped into two parts. The voluntary and the involuntary.

This became a major challenge throughout the trip. There was a constant battle between when to monitor myself so as not to seem rude and when to relax so I would not seem uncomfortable or uninteresting. The whole mental process was exhausting. I found solace in the cheap and always available alcohol.

The experience made me realize that I have severly underrecognized the significance of culture in the past, even on a small scale. I had not previously begun to fathom the depth of culture and it's fundamental role in respective realities.

After I returned home from the sixteen day soiree, I had to face some inevitable questions. How was your trip? How was Europe? What is it like in Slovakia? I struggled to answer. I humored them most of the time. Oh, the trip was great! Slovakia was beautiful! I want to go back next summer! But the truth is, it shoved me even further into this identity crisis that I've been struggling with. What's worse, it completely took me by surprise. I didn't expect it, nor do I fully realize how to interpret it to this day. I am still communicably stumped.