Nudity and Cultural Adaptability Quotients

After reading this thought-provoking article on “Buff culture” by Sherry Vacik on Expat Harem, I began thinking about nudity in other cultures as well as cultural adaptability.  When traveling or living abroad, it’s a given that you’re going to have to adapt to a different way of life.  The ease or difficulty of cultural adaptation often depends upon the amount of similarities between two cultures.

When moving from your culture to a culture with similar values, adaptation will be relatively easy.  The relationship between cultures can be determined based on cultural dimensions, cultural values, language, etc.  For example, going from the United States to Canada (two individualistic cultures) would be relatively easy while a move to Asia would be difficult because it is a collectivistic culture.

The ability to easily adjust to different cultures is something I call a “cultural adaptability quotient.” However, because you can adapt to a similar culture does not mean your quotient is high.  In order to have strong cultural adaptability skills, you must be able to adapt to very different cultures.

Such adaptability, however, becomes even more challenging when we are faced with differences that shake our core beliefs and question our cultural identity.  I referenced the article on nudity because this seemed to be such a touchy subject for many people, especially women, and can be a huge obstacle to cultural adaptation.

Then I began thinking about my own experiences with nudity and why I didn’t have any difficulties overcoming this cultural difference.  Although my experiences are limited and I haven’t experienced nearly as much as what some of the people who commented on the article wrote about, I do can say that all my experiences so far have been positive.

So far the biggest obstacle I overcame while in Russia in regard to nudity was accompanying some of my colleagues to the banya or Russian sauna.  While I’d visited a sauna with colleagues before, we’d only worn bathing suits or towels and were never naked.  This time, however, they brought along birch twigs which are used to slap the skin and promote circulation.  The slapping must be done on bare skin.

I’d never experienced the birth twigs before and this time I wanted to get the full banya experience.  So I entered the sauna and found my boss and her sister in there, in the nude, slapping each other with birch twigs.  The invited me to join so I stripped and allowed them to do the same.  After that we all jumped in the pool, swam for a bit, then dressed and went to the common area to relax, eat and drink.

Some time later, I was invited to put honey on my skin.  I declined because I didn’t want to deal with the mess of it, although they swore it wouldn’t be sticky if I put it on in the heated sauna.  But I sat in the sauna and got a good steam while several of my colleagues again stripped down and rubbed honey all over their bodies.  Then it was off to the pool again to wash off.

I can honestly say that during this entire time I was aware how different this experience was for me, how shocked and uncomfortable I probably would have felt if it happened in the United States, yet how comfortable I was throughout it all.  But why was I so comfortable?  Was it because I knew and trusted my colleagues and some of them were also very good friends?  That might have been part of it, but I think a bigger part was my understanding of what we were doing meant in a cultural context.

One of the main purposes of going to the banya or sauna is to relax and promote physical health.  I understood this as well as the Russian relationship toward the human body and nudity.  Nudity does not always equal sex.  When going to a doctor and being exposed, one of the reasons this is tolerable is because we know the doctor is a professional, has no interest in our body in an inappropriate way, and that our exposure is necessary for our health.

If we adapt this perspective to other healthful activities outside of a doctor’s office or hospital, we can feel relaxed while doing them.  Why?  Because there is no cultural significance!  In other cultures and in other activities that may not be health related, nudity is acceptable because it does not have a strong significance.  Nude beaches, for example, are there for relaxation and enjoyment.

So in analyzing my experience, I concluded that I was comfortable in the situation because I understood what it meant.  I knew that I wasn’t engaging in anything taboo even though it might have been taboo in another place (country, culture, etc.).  This understanding allowed me to relax, embrace the cultural difference, and relish the experience of trying something new and different.  If you can reach an understanding of a cultural on a deeper level, I believe it will make it significantly easier to adapt despite some seemingly shocking differences, thus raising your cultural adaptability quotient.

What challenges have you had adapting to a vastly different culture?  What techniques have you used to help you adapt, understand and accept the differences around you?   How is your own cultural adaptability quotient?


6 Responses to Nudity and Cultural Adaptability Quotients

  1. Anastasia M. Ashman says:

    Thanks for this, Joanne. I agree that when everyone present is on the same page, nudity can be completely comfortable. But all it takes is one person with a different mindset to make the setting unsafe-feeling.

    • JMS says:

      You’re welcome! I love the way you put it, how everyone has to be “on the same page.” This can describe a lot of other cultural situations that might be otherwise uncomfortable or unpleasant. I guess when you think about it a bit part of intercultural training is helping people get on the same page!

  2. Sher says:

    Hi Joanne,
    Anastasia told me about your post, so I came over to check it out!

    I agree about getting to the “same page” as everyone being the goal for adapting to another culture. That’s definitely the key to adapting. Adapting to the Czech lifestyle hasn’t been too hard for me, aside from the lack of customer service and the issue of nudity.

    I would love to be comfortable in such as setting as you described in the banya! What a great experience! For me, though, this is not an option. I don’t believe nudity in these settings is bad, but I’m not comfortable. This could have something to do with my own body image and self-confidence, but more, it touches the fact that in my past I was physically abused and told to read porn to learn “how things are done.” I’ve overcome most of that past, but there are still some issues that have indelibly marked my soul. I’ve overcome enough to have re-married (a miracle in itself!) and be living overseas–quite an accomplishment for someone like me!

    I’m not sharing this for any sympathy! I don’t need or want any, except that we need to remember there are different reasons for people being uncomfortable with certain aspects of another culture. Each individual is able to adapt to certain levels and certain instances, but might not be able to adapt in all ways.

    One more note–I would not try to “convert” Europe to my way of thinking or being. No way. It’s not correct to force our views on another culture or country–not even for religious reasons. If someone is feeling so strongly that things should be changed then they should stay in their home country. They do not have the right to force their views on the rest of the world. I firmly believe this.

    As individuals, before moving to another culture/country, it is highly suggested we learn as much as possible about the culture before moving. Maybe live there for a time to see if you can “survive!” The knowledge and understanding gained can be a huge help. I was able to do this before completely moving to the Czech Republic, and it was an immense help for me.

    Thankfully, for me, living in Europe hasn’t been too traumatic! Czechs even mistake me for another Czech all the time. I consider that to be a good thing as it means I’m adapting well enough that I fit in–that is, until I try to speak Czech or face some kind of nudity!

    Have a great day,
    Sher :0)

    • JMS says:

      Hi Sher! Thank you so much for taking the time to visit my blog and comment!

      I think you make a very good point, that sometimes for whatever reason some people simply aren’t comfortable in a situation even if it isn’t what might be deemed “bad” or “wrong.” This can be due to personal reasons or their own beliefs and is definitely not to be discounted. I think anyone who teaches others about another culture should read your comment so they can understand some possible challenges people might face.

      Instead of trying to drill certain cultural principles into ones head, trainers and teachers should try to understand their students/clients, build a relationship with them and help them through the experience. A huge part of successful adaptation is not just memorizing cultural facts and learning a language but dealing with your own unique challenges when facing certain situations.

      My article only touched on the tip of the iceberg as to reasons why people might feel uncomfortable, but after reading your comment I’m more aware that there may be more to it than just cultural differences and misunderstanding of motive. Thanks for sharing your insight!

      It definitely sounds like you’ve overcome a lot and are not only surviving, but thriving abroad! Being mistaken for Czech is a huge compliment! I was always so flattered when people thought I was Russian! Of course, like you, when I started to speak I kind of gave it away that I wasn’t!

      • Sher says:

        Hi Joanne,
        Yes, I so much agree with you! You touched on a great point–living abroad forces us to deal with our inner-selves–and whatever might be lurking in there!

        Really, this is a very insightful post.

        And I do envy you being able to be comfortable in a banya or similar situation! :)

        Have a great day!

  3. JC says:

    I find it curious how Americans are always amazed how other people can separate nudity from sex.

    Why don’t Americans realise that you are the odd ones, everyone else manages this simple task.

    Yet Americans are so prurient and sex-obssessed that they cannot see a naked baby without thinking of child abuse and sex. Only in America would a parents innocent photo of a baby in the bath be seen as pornographic. Only in the States do girls of 2 years have to wear a bikini top – despite having no breasts. Only in the USA do parents dress up their baby girls and put them in “beauty pageants”. You people are sick.

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