The poor little girl
PNG mourns passing of novelist Regis Stella

Succeed in (PNG) business without really trying


I MENTIONED THE FEELING of “otherness” in a previous article.  The experience or feeling of otherness is a downspin from its parents, culture shock.

Culture shock occurs when one is placed in a situation outside one’s comfort zone; in this case another culture.  The affects can be minimal in some people and extreme in others.

In one recent case a new manager for a Papua New Guinea company came in from overseas.  He spent several days in Port Moresby and then seemed to disappear.  The company found the vehicle with which he had been provided parked outside his hotel but no sign of him. 

Further tracking ascertained that he had flown out of the country a day or so earlier.  Nothing was heard from him again.  In all likelihood the shock of being in a new culture had driven him away.

That is an extreme case.  Most people slowly get over it and come to enjoy their new experiences.  Very few lose that sense of being different from the majority of people around them in their host country however.

The phenomenon seems to be one that affects people from western cultures moving into developing countries more so than the other way round; although I do recall my parent’s anxiety when moving from England to Australia when I was a child.  It didn’t affect me at all; kids seem to be immune to the malady. 

You would expect that Papua New Guineans coming to Australia to study or for other reasons would suffer from it but that doesn’t seem to be the case; perhaps their culturally innate state of being laid back offsets it.  It would be interesting to know if this is really true.

Being laid back is a useful antidote to culture shock and its ramifications should not be ignored.  It probably explains, for instance, why Australia was a comparatively successful colonist in Papua New Guinea.

If the British and Germans had stayed on Papua New Guinea would probably now be a highly stratified society with very rigid behavioural mores, good in some ways but bad in others.  If the French had been the colonisers they would probably still be there and everyone would, surprisingly, be relatively happy.

If the Americans had been the colonising power there would probably be much more development and infrastructure but local people would be a lot more marginalised and the culture would have died out long ago.

The American scenario is interesting and you only have to look at the way they manage their wars to appreciate it.  In Vietnam, for instance, the Australians, with their experience of insurgents in Malaya, took a stance of winning over hearts and minds.

In Phuoc Tuy Province they gained control by providing medical, educational, and other services and building up infrastructure to win over the people and defeat the Vietcong.  In their areas the American approach was to bomb the hell out of the place to gain control. 

Remember Robert Duvall’s famous line in Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”?  Their approach to a culture that they couldn’t understand was to destroy it.  This is all detailed in Paul Ham’s excellent book, Vietnam: The Australian War.

To reiterate, culture shock and its child, otherness, shouldn’t be discounted lightly.  The American approach to dealing with other cultures is apparent in the way business is conducted between the developers and landowners of the LNG Project, for instance.

In the Ramu the Chinese, who seem to take a similar approach to the Americans, also deal with landowners in the same heavy-handed manner. 

Even worse, of course, are the Malaysians and Rimbunan Hijau.  In all cases it is basically because they do not understand the culture and are afraid of it.

You can even see this approach in American and some fundamentalist Australian missionaries in Papua New Guinea.  They don’t seek to understand the cultures over which they intrude but are hell bent on replacing them with their own as quickly as possible.

Australian companies take a similar if more subdued line.  A capitalist is a capitalist after all.  While the managers have trouble coming to grips with Papua New Guinean ways they have an advantage over the Americans, Chinese and Malaysians because they have, as a resource, a band of grumpy old ex-kiaps, planters and the occasionally enlightened anthropologist available to manage their community affairs for them. 

These people went through the culture shock thing a long time ago and while they still might have a sense of otherness they understand the culture.  The managers don’t understand and don’t seem to want to understand how these scruffy individuals seem to be able to solve their problems for them; they just know that if they don’t use them everything can quickly turn to you-know-what.

There are exceptions to the rule of course; many fine American, Chinese and other expatriates have settled into Papua New Guinea quite comfortably.

If you ask them how they do it they will invariably explain how they have taken the time to learn about local cultures and rather than trying to change them have adjusted their own attitudes and slotted into the niche thus created.

The moral of this story, therefore, is that to be successful in Papua New Guinean business, expatriates need to take time to understand the culture, respect it and most importantly adjust their attitudes accordingly. 

To do otherwise is simply inviting disaster and that plane ticket out might be the only viable option.


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Harry Topham

Phil - Tales of people doing quick bolts out of PNG in earlier years were quite common.

The trouble was whether a lot of these stories were true and as they did the rounds had the yarns been further editorialised in their later recounts.

A story along these lines as told to me goes like this.

There was a young government official circa 1960’s who was stationed in the Western Province who was reported missing after taking his dingy out one day and not telling any one where he going.

Despite a thorough search he could not be located so the search was widened to include the Torres Strait area and contact made with the authorities there.

Well the gentleman was eventually found ensconced in a pub at Thursday Island.

When later questioned about his movements he replied that he was sick and tired of the western district and had decided to take a break at TI and since he had been there was quite enraptured by the place and indicated that may yet stay on permanently.

Unfortunately the eventual outcome of this tale was never elaborated upon as to what happened to him afterwards.

Knowing the goings on in PNG at that time the story is quite probably true as I met some strange characters there that showed the same strange behavior as this miscreant.

Congratulations, Harry, this is the 10,000th comment to be published in PNG Attitude - KJ

Peter Kranz

Hard to explain, but there is definitely 'culture shock syndrome' when visitors with unrealistic or narrow expectations travel to somewhere 'different'.

Responses seem to depend on your openness to new experiences and your ability to put aside pre-conceptions and just be prepared to be immersed in something unexpected.

Rather than single out PNG, I can relate from my own experience in Thailand. On a visit to Bankok for the first time I rejoiced in the sights, tastes, smells and views of the Thai capital. Sometimes disturbing, but often beautiful. It was fascinating.

My sister visited a few years later, and after one experience venturing into the street outside her hotel, she retreated back into her room with something like shock. "I can't take it!" she said.

She'd only be confronted by her first view of Asian street markets, tuktuks, the smells of a tropical city, the odd beggar or two, and the occasional conmen taxi drivers. But she couldn't deal with it.

In Mosbi of course you have to become street-wise very quickly. But you also have to learn to embrace 'the other' and recognise that people in their hearts are basically the same the world over. It's only the outward veneer that seems different to our eyes.

I wish my sis had lived long enough for me to take her to meet my family in the Highlands to help open her mind. Sadly not to be.

Some people thrive on new experiences, others feel threatened. Not sure why, but I've seen the difference within my own family.

Harry Topham

Phil in his recent well-crafted and thoughtful essay raises a very interesting topic, that is, expatriates in PNG attitudes to culture shock issues.

This subject has never received the full due attention it deserves from academics and historians, a part of which can probably can be attributed to one of our worst human traits of ethnocentric based egotism and the effect that has on intercultural exchanges and idealism.

Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton in his series of essays “ The Freedom Paradox” postulated that mankind could follow three pathways in life: the happy life, the good life and the meaningful life.

The first two pathways relate to personal satisfaction gained through rewards based upon monetary and egotistical gain whilst the meaningful life is based upon spiritual aspects of finding one soul gained through self sacrifice.

Hamilton cites notable characters of our time such as Ghandi and Nelson Mandela as examples of the last type.

Many of PNG’s past missionary and government pioneers through their selfless acts, humility and remarkable achievements would also appear to be well qualified for such recognition.

If Clive Hamilton’s observations on contemporary life are to be accepted then it would seem that mankind is intent only pursuing the first and second pathways of life.

Unfortunately as Hamilton notes the first and second pathways do not provide the inner satisfaction required as they are based upon hedonism and materialism and because these faulty ideals never seem to provide enough, the ensuing frustration then leads to the associated malady of depression arising.

As it is obvious that the current players in the game are not prepared to accept the fact that ones future is dependant on revisiting ones history it would then appear that the die has been cast and little improvements leading to better understandings between the outsiders and their hosts would be forthcoming unless the mindset of those involved changes.

Peter Kranz

Phil - Good article. I experienced something similar to your story of the disappearing businessman. In this case it was an Australian academic who had been appointed to a fairly senior post.

She spent one day in Moresby, only never to be heard of again - she'd hightailed it back to Oz after her first walk downtown.

A related phenomenon is Paris syndrome - affecting mainly Japanese people visiting Paris for the first time.

Around 20 Japanese tourists a year are affected by the syndrome, classed as a genuine 'transient psychological disorder'. Similar things happen to some visitors to Jerusalem.

Mrs Barbara Short

Thank God for "the scruffy individuals". I hope the wise people of PNG make good use of them before they reach "their use-by date"!

I know it took me a few years to fit back into the Australian culture. Some may say "I'm still a bit different". For that I thank PNG.

I'm now very happy to have many old PNG friends on my email list. A cheery word from PNG is great to have.

Paul Oates

Phil - I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your observations. A laissez-faire approach often yields better results than charging around like a wounded bull.

While we are sometimes grateful our to allies ‘across the pond’, their modus operandi often appears to be ‘go in, flatten everything, proclaim good ol’ USA values and then wonder why no one wants any part of them?

As kiaps, we were told in our training about how we would experience culture shock and to be ready for it.

Those of us who come from fairly regimented backgrounds understandably found concepts like ‘New Guinea time’ initially fairly hard to accept.

Sitting around the campfire at night as equals and swopping stories seemed to help however.

The corollary of ‘culture shock’ is reverse culture shock for which we were not in any way prepared. Many of us found that out when that we had to return to Australia we wondered what had hit us?

Red tape, countless pieces of useless legislation brought in by politicians who wanted to prove they knew what to do and how to do it and a sense that anything learnt in our time in PNG was now of no value ‘down south’.

This reverse culture shock sent some into a somewhat catatonic mental state where they found it very difficult to fit back into the society they originally came from.

PNG and her people had changed us forever. Maybe that’s why so many ‘outsiders’ find it hard to understand the PNG way of doing things.

You have to be prepared to become immersed in the culture, learn the language and be accepted by the people before you have a hope of working with everyone and not against them.

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