On the Walking Dead zombies brought the apocalypse to Atlanta. Last week, a measly two inches of snow seemed to bring Atlanta to the verge of total collapse. In this post, Midwestern-native Stephanie Medley-Rath explains what snow and ice in Atlanta, GA can teach us about culture shock, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism.
I promise that I did not intend for snow to be a recurring theme in my posts this winter (see here and here). But then the snow kept falling and falling in regions that typically do not get much snow, such as Atlanta, GA.
I lived in Atlanta for six years while attending graduate school. During my first winter living there, I learned how ill-prepared the city and many residents were to handle any snow or ice. In my apartment complex, maintenance attempted to clear the parking lot with a piece of plywood attached to the front of a golf cart. My Midwestern reaction was to send an email to my friends describing the snow removal technique. “Of course, you should use proper snow removal equipment!” I thought. I was experiencing culture shock. I was surprised by how the people of Atlanta dealt with snow. It was very different from my own experiences growing up in Illinois.
A couple of years later, there was more ice. I was still an apartment dweller without a garage, but I did have an ice scraper to clean my car windows. I watched as my neighbor resorted to boiling water to pour on his truck windows to remove the ice. I offered my ice scraper, but he didn’t want it. His method worked, despite taking longer and the greater risk of injury compared to my humble ice scraper. While his ice removal method worked, it is certainly was not what I, the experienced-with-snow- Midwesterner recommended. At this point, I had grown accustomed to how Atlanta residents dealt with snow and ice, but still remained perplexed at the refusal of my ice scraper.
Atlanta is an interesting city because many of the people living in Atlanta are not actually from Atlanta or the South (i.e., transplants). Many Atlanta residents have substantial experience with snow and ice and Atlanta’s lack of snow and ice is one of the reasons people move there. It is easy for the transplants, however, to negatively judge how less than an inch of snow brings the city to a standstill. In sociology, this negative reaction to culture shock is referred to as ethnocentrism.
Any time we encounter a culture different from our own, we may experience culture shock. Culture shock, however, does not have to result in ethnocentrism. Instead, a person can practice cultural relativism. Cultural relativism attempts to understand a way of thinking or doing from that culture’s perspective. To understand how a dusting of snow may shut down a Southern city, one has to understand the perspective of the native-born Southerners and long term residents. Snow is uncommon in Atlanta (though not unheard of). But because of it’s rare occurance, it makes little sense for a city (and businesses and residents) to spend substantial sums of money on snow and ice removal to be used once or twice a year, if that. (To be fair, the city is spending quite a bit of money now rescuing stranded motorists and feeding school children.)
While snow and ice are created by nature, how people respond to and handle snow and ice has to do with our culture. This leads to different groups of people handling snow and ice differently. Even within the state of Illinois, different regions handle snow differently. An inch of snow in the northern part of the state might result in business as usual, whereas the same amount of snow in southern Illinois may result in closure of not only schools, but businesses, too. I live in the central part of the state, which means we can handle more snow than the southern part, but we are not as good at handling it as if we lived in the northern part of the state.
Of course Southern cities have greater difficulty handling snow compared to Northern and Midwestern cities. This isn’t because Southern residents are ignorant or inferior. It’s because they have little reason to be well-prepared for something that happens infrequently.
[Please note, there has been plenty of criticism directed at government officials over their handling of the situation. I don’t know enough about that side of the story to offer any additional insight beyond encouraging you to think about the role of structure and as of this writing, the following article detailing the challenges Atlanta the region faced.]
- Explain what culture shock is. Discuss a time when you experienced culture shock.
- Compare the two main responses to culture shock. Discuss which response you experienced using your example from question 1.
- If you experienced ethnocentrism in question 2, discuss how you instead could have practiced cultural relativism. If you experienced cultural relativism in question 2, explain how you managed to avoid ethnocentrism.
- Explain why cultural relativism is a useful tool compared to ethnocentrism.