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?