A Fish out of Water

“How do you like the water today?” asked the whale.

“What is water?” answered the fish.

A fish that has lived its whole life on the sandy bottom of the sea will have no concept of water. Water is what is.  How else would it be?

That is my main question for you today:

How else could it be?

Because in some ways, most of us are like the fish.

Like the poor fish pulled out of the water, many people feel estranged when they have moved far away, perhaps to another country.  I know.  Because I did.  I moved from a small country, supposedly one of the happiest on Earth, Denmark, to California, the sixth-largest economy of the world.

Some differences are obvious: people speak differently; the weather; the food; the plants; the very air we breathe…

And then we have the more subtle “what is important here?” and “the way things are done here”: The local culture.

To many, this meeting of internalized and unconscious expectations and a changed external reality starts a process of thinking – perhaps for the first time ever – what do I really stand for?  What are my values?  And why?

These days people readily signal what they are against, but what are they for?

I have traveled to a lot of countries so I was never surprised by the many practical differences. But I was surprised by how much living in another country meant I had to examine my values.  The feeling of being estranged was so deep that I had to do something drastic: I went back to school.  A degree, a website, and a book later, culture and values are still questions close to my heart.  I call myself a Bridge Builder partly because I help “translate America” to immigrants moving here, partly because I help people better talk to each other.

On this complicated subject of culture, I want to share some of what I have learned with you, although it can in no way be a complete picture.  Hopefully you, too, will follow your curiosity and learn of ways other people look at the world.  Because even if we just want to talk to fellow countrymen from the other side of any cultural divide, we can benefit from knowing what is already discovered about cultural differences.

Let us start by taking a step back and first ask where cultures come from?

One parent is the history of the community:  What dangers have been faced together?  What successes have been shared that are now “local legend” – and which failures?  (Do we even remember the latter so we know not to do that again?  Do we remember the same historic events the same way?)

Do we not share important events?  Are we aware that we don’t share them?

Another parent is our systems.  The word “systems” easily makes us think of computers, but systems are much broader. It is the way gas and water and electricity are delivered; the roads and how they are maintained; who look after our senior citizens; who teaches the kids; how we cast our vote; how we shop… It is also our Constitution, the way we make laws, and the way we uphold the laws.

Once systems are in place they can be very hard to change.  People who have grown up with a certain set of systems often believe that this is the way things have to be; the unconscious expectations.  The systems become like water to fish.

There has been nothing like a worldwide pandemic to make many more people think about which system assures that they can get toilet paper?  Or which system will look after their parents or children if they themselves are no longer capable to do so?  Many are painfully/gratefully aware that the way we shop for just about anything in the USA has been hugely changed over the last 10 years; a change accelerated by the pandemic.

Just as people don’t choose where they are born, they don’t choose which systems they grow up with.

The third parent of culture is our values. Thousands of people have been asked how much they are similar to people as described in these examples:

He strongly believes that people should care for nature. Looking after the environment is important to him.

Tradition is important to her. She tries to follow the customs handed down by her religion or her family.

(Questions like these are included in the U.S. Social Survey, the European Social Survey, and have been asked multiple times from Australia to Japan to India to Egypt to Chile. Over the last 25 years, at least a million people have answered.)

From the answers, social psychologists can evaluate how populations prioritize values across countries all over the world; where they agree, where they differ, and which values have a pattern of being present together.  The work of Professor Shalom Schwartz and an international team of researchers found seven value clusters shown below.

Notice that I wrote how populations prioritize.  Most people can find something positive to say about all the values examined.  But some values are just more of the norm in some populations than in others.

If you look at the circle, starting at one o’clock you see Embeddedness oppose two forms of Autonomy in the model, Hierarchy opposing Egalitarianism, and Mastery opposes Harmony.

Populations high in Embeddedness put a high priority on a.o. tradition, safety, honor, cleanliness, social order, devoutness, and self-discipline.  This is contrasted with peoples high in Autonomy who cherish curiosity, broadmindedness, and creativity (Intellectual Aut.) and enjoyment, excitement, and variation (Affective Aut.)

I am sure you know people that fit either description.  Sometimes they are members of the same family.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Thanks, Charlotte, for opening my eyes. And I’m glad you included graphics, that helped.

    Your metaphor of a fish out of water is apt. I’ve traveled (including your Denmark and California) and gasped for air like a fish. And adapted, too.

    Even in my church, we have 40+ different cultures of peoples, so I do encounter what you write of . . . and your article is a good puzzle piece to add for global understanding.

    I remember participating in programs at an Intercultural Institute that provided much guidance over many interactions.

    You put so much into one spot so well: thanks!


    • Sorry that I have been late to my own party here, Cynthia, and so happy that you could recognize yourself in the description.

      If we can meet others with curiosity, much can be achieved together.

  2. Charlotte, this was fascinating! And perfect timing for me. We’re about to make a big change in our family (I think my piece revealing such will hit next week, so I won’t spoil it), and this was a great way to prime me for the change. Early in my career I worked for a company that did academic advising for Japanese students who wanted to study in the US or Canada and I would do cross-cultural workshops to prepare them around what to expect. I find the topic absolutely fascinating and look forward to reading your book.

    • I am so exited for you and your family and your plans. If I can give one piece of advice it is to put a high priority on finding a local crowd to hang out with. Join a sports club, a church, an expat community, volunteer… Relationships don’t build themselves.

      It is my impression that Americans are good at this because there has been much moving around, but now that people are “bowling alone” behind their electronic gadgets more often, it bears repeating. And if Covid makes it difficult – your BC360 friends are still just a message away.

  3. If we stop to really look at our life, we will see that our actions, our tastes, our habits, are often the result of social background, our family, city, culture, employment status, not the result of our personal desire. So we should ask ourselves if we are sure to know what we really like and if we are sure to know our limits. Comparing ourselves with a reality different from that in which we were born and grew up, we learn to adapt to any style of life, to appreciate aspects and to draw teaching. Travelling makes to grow and to enrich personally. Traveling is learning about new cultures, new customs, new tastes. What we take in every trip becomes part of a wider dimension of simple living. The memory of what we see during the trip gives way to criticism, increasing our level of experience and helping to give shape and color to our inner self, transforms us and resize our awareness. Generally, every trip helps to make us better people because it promotes dialogue with ourselves and puts us in a position to look at things with a different eye, often more objective. How to find a job or a new home, how to use public transport, moving to a new city or just pack your bags, perhaps feel the absence of protection, leaving your area of comfort. Learning a language is much more than grammar, vocabulary, phonetics and spelling. There is also literature, humor, body language, the way of life. All this will make us more appreciative of what we have and what we will get, teaching us to be even more resourceful.
    This is all part of the journey of personal growth.

    • Thank you for adding your perspective, Aldo.

      I completely agree that we are a product of our environment to a wide degree – which can be a confining box. But then again, how well versed are we at identifying our personal desire? Is it by process of elimination? Is it by chance that we see that doing this or that more often brings us into flow state than doing so may other things? Do we have the luxury of following that path if we have obligations to family?

    • Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by cumbersome superstructures, by negative thoughts, by patterns we have learned in the past that we seem not to want anything in an authentic way. The moment we let the other tell us what to do, to suggest how to satisfy our needs, we lose the pleasure of discovery and at the same time our essence.
      Experts (not me) say that what we can do is explore what excites us, what deepens us with passion and desire, giving flavor and nourishment to our existence. Having discovered this, we can tune into our desires. It is therefore not a question of changing, but of exploring oneself, taking hands and attuning to one’s feelings. For example, we can try to write freely everything that passes through our mind, without paying too much attention to the sense of what comes to mind, letting the mind wander, explore and tune in.
      In conclusion, only by recognizing our desires can we process them and decide whether to grant them to us or discover something new about ourselves and possibly change something in our lifestyle habits.
      It’s not easy to do everything yourself but it’s worth a try.

  4. Dear Charlotte,

    This was an incredibly insightful share worth reading as expected! If I may add something here, I’d say that the culture which lies at the nexus of the history, systems, and values– as you’re brilliantly stipulating it– can become a souvenir at one CONDITION: destroying the root cause of all the distortions; thus, breaking with the cruel humankind record and UNITING for real the human beings from the four corners of the globe!

    What is this MIRACULOUS solution? Becoming aware of the trap of the subconscious program by which people are operating on auto-pilot 90% of their days at least, while they never wrote it in the first place. In fact, it is the result of the intersection of 3 elements defining the environment in which we were born (a choice we never made).

    After the awakening, a long adventure fueled by humility, self-awareness, honesty, openness, and consistency takes place to re-write the invasive subconscious program, so that every individual no matter their upbringings could “unbecome the filter” and move back to the original great being whose constitution is the universal correct principles / the natural laws!

    Let me tell you what this would mean in relation to the 7 Clusters of the study. Before we go there, I want to discuss some points:

    * I believe “obedience” needs to be a common trait between the “EMBEDDEDNESS” and “HIERARCHY” Clusters. The latter would not have any sense without the obedience of the followers.
    * I would argue the “Humble” trait could be part of the “HIERARCHY” Cluster. The opposite would be true actually! No single person making use of a formal authority could be humble. Humility is the mother of all the virtues and it’s the servant leaders arena, people who are principle-centered, who know how to build trust and healthy relationships, individuals who are followed because of their moral authority, and because they are trusted and loved.

    Coming back to the Clusters, here are the changed I am imagining:

    * “EMBEDDEDNESS” and “HIERARCHY” would disappear.
    * “MASTERY” currently oriented to the self-serving and egoistical “success” would be transformed into putting one’s talents in the service of the universe.
    * “EGALITARANISM” would be way broader and become the “PRINCIPLES” which is very different from the very subjective “VALUES”. This “PRINCIPLES” cluster is the moral CONSTITUTION by which we’d live daily. The official constitution and laws should be inspired by those universal principles.
    * “AFFECTIVE AUTONOMY” would be way more interesting since life would be existing and pleasurable because of being on a mission and because our basic need of leaving a legacy would be fulfilled!

    • I love how you have actively engaged with the text and models, Myriam.

      You are absolutely on point with obedience; the values I mentioned in the article was not complete and obedience is exactly where you expect to find it. The reason that Humble is in the Hierarchy cluster is not because people high in the hierarchy claim they are humble but because deference/reverence is the activity that sometimes go along with humble, and that only happens if there is a hierarchical attitude.

      One of my favorite change of meaning is the word “condescending”.
      As it was used in the early 19th century – famously by Mr.Collins in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – it denoted that a person of higher rank ventured to mingle with the common folks and honor them by his/her presence. But to see that as a positive thing, one has to recognize the superiority of that higher rank.
      As the word is used today, “condescending” denotes that somebody try to imply that they have higher rank and that the superiority is NOT recognized by the person feeling condescended to.
      I think that “humble” is the opposite pole of condescending in as much as it is an expected behavior vis a vis the condescending person.
      But ‘humble” has a meaning outside of this context and that is where we wish for people, particularly leaders, to be humble and in service of those they lead, rather than what is often experienced in top down management.

  5. Charlotte,
    Thank you so much for this contribution. It’s a perspective with great significance. How we all come from that to which we are born and the environment around us. I found this insightful and interesting. I’m glad you had a good experience and now you have put it to good use. Culture shock is a stress on many new immigrants. I’m the daughter of
    immigrants to Canada, I have not been one but have witnessed the anxiety and a myriad of feelings that my parents endured. All of my neighbours were immigrants. We merged nicely. I have to say in my street growing up it was like a mini United Nations, and we did get along for the most part. Although there were cultural differences, there was a common goal of wanting a better life and working hard for it. Both your article and the chats on the friendship bench caused some great discussion and much reflection.
    Thank you for this opportunity

    • Thanks Paula, so happy you found it insightful.

      Many immigrants find that they connect well with other immigrants regardless of background or home country because there is the commonality of “not really knowing what is going on”. We get acculturated with a distaste for saying “I don’t know” but there is not the same loss of face asking somebody who have walked in the same shoes about practical problems – or about overcoming culture shock.

  6. Thank you, Catharine. I am glad that you had a good experience after a rough start.

    A comment in the chat today read “it has been my experience that MANY many Americans (100% of my clients so far, and even more people I’ve spoken with) has no actual deep awareness of their actual personal values, they MAY be able to parrot what their socio-demographic groups expect of them but they can’t elaborate beyond the recitation ;)”

    Sound bites give little nourishment for the soul, but if we deep dive into values, we suddenly can be side by side instead of at each other’s throats. Perhaps we will end like Evelyn Hall “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. But that is still much better than what goes on most days.

  7. Charlotte-
    Thank you for your insights and for sharing them on the firendship bench today! It was a great process to explore the origins of our values and how the messages that are internalized from those we interact with daily or the social morrays impact our decisions, perspectives, and ultimately how we show up in any given situation.

    Well done!