Changing the world one culture shock at a time

How can so-called ‘culture shock’ remould the way we treat other people and the planet? Aaron Millar explains

Culture shock. It was market day in Tanant, a dusty Berber village in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, Morocco. I was on my own and miles away from the tourist crowd. Stalls of fresh honey and sweet toasted almonds nestled beside hooked goat heads and enormous dried-out cow tongues. People thrust hand-woven rugs and live chickens in my face. I saw a sheep being skinned to the side of a blood splattered tent, and another being led calmly in. It felt like I’d been sucked into a maelstrom of brutal sensations, too raw and unfamiliar to understand. Leaving your comfort zone, I decided that day is, well, uncomfortable.

But it can be a good thing too, and here’s why: as we grow up we learn to understand an unspoken language of cues and customs that are rooted in the communities and culture in which we’re born. Culture shock happens because when we travel this language changes. We become unable to navigate the complexity of a new, and unrecognisable, social world. But culture shock signifies something important, too. It means, however painful, that we’re abandoning our cultural cliques and bred-in biases and beginning to truly see the world through another’s eyes. There’s a term for this: it’s called widening our circle of empathy and, believe it or not, it’s how we’re going to save the world.

“Culture shock means that we’re abandoning our cliques and bred-in biases and beginning to truly see the world through another’s eyes.”

Albert Einstein said that we free ourselves by “widening our circle of compassion”. The Dalai Lama said: “The key to a happier world is the growth of compassion.” Only through genuine intercultural understanding can we solve the global problems of our world. But where do we begin? We may already have.

In his book, The Empathic Civilisation, Jeremy Rifkin argues that human empathy initially existed solely for one’s tribe, but has since evolved through the course of history to include one’s religion, and nationality, and there’s no reason to assume it will stop now. He believes we currently have the capacity to radically expand our compassion until it encompasses all of humanity, other species and even the planet itself.

Widening the circle isn’t easy, but there is hope: neurological evidence proves that we’re hard-wired to care. The drive to connect is more primary than the drive to destroy. And now we are at a point in history, driven in part by technology, in which we are poised to extend our identities beyond the parameters of religion, and the fiction of the nation state, to include solidarity for all living beings. We see this happening in numerous ways such as increasing initiatives to protect animal rights, in growing respect for indigenous cultures, in the changing face of economics. But, in order to continue to do so, we have to nurture our empathy. We have to feed our intercultural understanding or the demons of our lesser nature – aggression, prejudice and violence – will take over. Our fears will shrink our heart.

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Back in Morocco, the next day, I found myself again lost in the midst of Berber country. I had stumbled across a Festival Fantasia: a rare demonstration of traditional horsemanship that has been celebrated here for hundreds of years. Two dozen riders charged across the red earth before me, firing their rifles in unison at the midday sun. Behind me a toothless old woman flicked her tongue in loud ululation as the galloping hooves enveloped us in a mist of blood-coloured dust and smoke. I was in the maelstrom again, but rather than fight it this time I let it in. I became, for just an instant, the riders, the surge of the crowd, the look in the old lady’s eyes. And they’ve never left me to this day.

Travel is not the end, or only, solution, but exploring new cultures is a start. Widening the circle of empathy begins with a curious mind and an open door. Culture shock may just save the world.

For more information about Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The Empathic Civilisation, visit