Geographic Isolation Leads to Cultural Dissonance?

by Kenneth on October 23, 2018

I had a bit of a personal scare yesterday at my Moscow presentation. I have a certain type of seizures that are unpredictable, as most seizures are, but some can be avoided by avoiding certain stimuli (flashing lights, for example). My seizures are never usually past the first few minutes of my morning after waking. But I’ve had certain experiences where I’ve felt what’s called the “aura” that precedes or follows a seizure when it’s not the morning. My aura consists of a certain heaviness and tightness in my chest and a flush of pins and needles in my elbow that progresses up to my shoulder.

Yesterday, I had a packed auditorium and the lights had been turned off so that the big projection screen could be seen by the residents of the retirement community. However, five minutes into my intro after the lights got turned off midway in, with the contrast of the bright screen against the blackened room I felt a flush of needles through my elbow after looking at the screen for a second time of the fifth slide. It was a scary moment as I stopped talking, trying to wonder if I should call out loud for a nurse or try to continue as I grabbed the podium tightly and waited for it to either subside or progress. It was scary because I could have collapsed and fell but I took my focus off the bright screen long enough for the aura to pass without problem. This effected the presentation however as my speech fumbled in the moment, followed by mistakes and tripping over words constantly throughout. I emailed a thank you to the director saying that I “noticed areas of improvement” rather than telling her that I had a seizure in the auditorium while speaking and it effecting the quality of the presentation.

Because of this, I wasn’t able to give any examples of daily Russian life that I witnessed as the delay cause the presentation to run long. I wanted to tell them about the emotion part of the culture.

I’ve written previously how I found out that not every culture wears the emotions on their sleeves in Estonia. But I’ve never made mention of what I’ve only recently had the chance to share with a crowd who is very open and receptive to what I’m sharing as it is causing cognitive dissonance, or conflict with their beliefs. I have had the opportunity to tell a group of seniors that, here in the US we have been isolated. Outside of 1776 and 1812, we have not had to experience occupation or invasion.

However Russian history is filled with occupation by foreign powers, beyond that of Germany in WW2. For two hundred years Russia was occupied and oppressed by the grandsons of Genghis Khan and their Golden Mongol Horde before the upstart Moscovite principality raised enough resources to push them out. During the “Time of Troubles” between the Rurik and Romanov dynasties, Sweden and Poland invaded with Poland occupying and claiming Moscow’s throne for their own. When Peter the Great invaded Swedish territory to ultimately claim the area of St. Petersburg and push Russia’s border westward, Swedish troops fought inside of Russia for over twenty years. Peter and other rulers would also battle the Ottoman Turkish Empire in the South. Then in the Napoleonic Wars, the French directly under Napoleon Bonaparte invaded.

I used this to paint a picture as to how they view outsiders, with cautious suspicion, given their history as well as their own cultural narrative to not show outward emotion, which to an American may appear cold, deceiving, and mysterious. But once they get to know you and feel comfortable, they will tell you all about family life and the like. I routinely, in conversation, bring up how the hotel bartender in Moscow started showing me pictures of his kids and telling me stories of fishing at his dacha with them and his wife, or in the restaurant, the server and manager began to anticipate my order and when I helped them out during a busy time they were incredibly grateful. At first it was a business relationship, then they saw that I returned again and again, got comfortable with me seeing my active but noninvasive interest and opened up to me and I to them.

I have since had a few online friendships develop in this same manner, short replies, to amusing queries and then asking for input. It’s about the effort and the ability to know that some things take time. I wish I had the opportunity to tell that story more.