Culture Shock at Face Value during Flight Attendant Training-- How I Grew Past Judgment and So Can You
My personal presentation got culture-shocked from Plain Jane to Jessica Rabbit during training. (Did you know make-up is regional?)
I got a job as a flight attendant once, and I know culture shock. But not from the destinations--from the coworkers!
culture shock: the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.
How Flight Attendant School Gave me Culture Shock
"I haven't felt this uncool since the fifth grade," I spoke into my cell phone. I was 25, lying on the floor in a deserted hotel conference room. Night was settled snugly over Houston.
Deserted conference rooms at the witching hour were the rare place for privacy during flight attendant training. You live with an assigned roommate in a hotel room by night. Then, you work 10 hours of training by day 6 days a week, rideshare, and study in groups (if you want to succeed).
My friend on the phone made a sound of empathy, of shock. It was true, though! I didn't know bullying and ostracism over outfits and make-up even happened in the grown-up world.
In fifth grade, I had re-entered public school from years of home school. I spent my recesses walking and reading at the same time, circling the track alone. It took a while to re-socialize. By the end of the year, the teacher proudly remarked I was instead playing imagination with others.
In the years since homeschool (and fifth grade), my confidence grew steadily. I modeled for art photographers, traveled the world, and worked professional jobs. I learned to motorcycle and made friends of all kinds.
Yet the fellow new hires in flight attendant school left me feeling like a 10-year-old all over again. Like I was fresh out of homeschool.
"I think it's just culture shock," I confided on the phone. "Everyone here has different assumptions about how to dress."
It was true!
Fashion Police, Fashion Pressure
Now, in flight attendant school, you have to follow the professional dress code perfectly every day. They can fire you over failing at it.
So, I went to a thrift shop before flying out of state to attend. I bought a bunch of professional skirts, business jackets, and blouses. I felt pretty satisfied. Who has the money to buy a whole bunch of clothes you'll never wear again? Besides, I felt some of the items were pretty cute.
From the younger women who graduated college yesterday to the women far more mature than me, everyone was in new clothes. They dressed daily in new department store... or high fashion... brands.
There was so much more going on than the employer's dress code to confront me when I arrived. I was not prepared. Neither in my suitcase or my head!
Some true stories for you about how seriously colleagues took the style thing...
One day, I heard something going on in the hall on my way into class. I saw a woman pacing in the center of a shadowy cluster at the end of the hall, clutching a cell in her hand. She spoke fervently. From the distance, I knew her to be one who always had impeccable eyelash extensions. (I'd never even seen eyelash extensions before training! I'd spent a while amazed, thinking they were real).
I didn't want to pry.
Punctuality is a big deal in flight attendant training, though. There was a big murmur going around the classroom. The colleague was still not seated.
What had happened? She had totally broken down in the hallway. I found out later through the rumor mill that she at one point shrieked into her cell, "I knew I should have brought my Louboutins! I look so ugly here!"
It sounded half like despair, half like she blamed her mother.
Every morning, we piled onto a giant bus. It shuttled us from the hotel to the training center. All would be quiet. (However, once, an extremely likable classmate got us all up in a 6 a.m. karaoke rendition of "Dancing Queen"! That was a lot of fun).
This incident happened on one of those quiet mornings, though. A popular girl twisted in her seat in front of me. "No offense, but I have a question to ask."
Her voice was audible all through the bus.
"Are you Mormon or something?"
I was too naive to realize she was bullying me. I felt seen, and it felt nice. "No, but my great grandparents were Mennonites!"
"I knew it!" she exclaimed. "Your make-up. Your clothes. Plain." She waved a hand vaguely. We chatted a little more, then fell quiet.
Something felt off. I kept turning the colleague's words over in my head that day, unsure why.
Later on, different classmates gasped an explanation to me. How rude that had been! We heard! How mean! they cooed.
Who Teaches Style?
Most girls learn how to do make-up from their mothers. "You want it to highlight your natural beauty, not create a different beauty." That's the founding principle I learned.
Yet all around me in flight attendant training, I saw women with make-up on to the level of magazine cover models.
There's this Internet joke about being a bisexual woman. The picture in the meme can be of any gorgeous woman with great makeup and wearing a fantastic outfit. The caption is, "Do I want you, or want to look like you?"
The joke is for bisexual females, but it points out the fine line between admiration and envy--a line that limits itself to no orientation. It's a human experience.
Over time, being the style outsider left me feeling angry. Yes, angry. I couldn't understand fully why. I knew it had to do with how little I thought looking that good mattered for work. Something to do with how I was clean, professional, and up to the company standards, so what was the problem?
Until I could understand what I was feeling more deeply than "culture shock," I wouldn't be able to grow and let it go.
Maybe the answer was in my roots. In my own culture.
I remembered my dad sharing his childhood with me once. "The women didn't wear make-up in church, or ever."
He has a profound affection for his late grandmother, who was probably/possibly Mennonite. (I must confess I'm using the term 'Mennonite' loosely--we don't actually know what they were. They called themselves "Friends." They didn't keep televisions, didn't wear make-up, and church services occurred in living rooms. These are our clues).
"Grandma kept her hair up unless she was at home. Her hair was so long! I remember how beautiful I thought it was, as a little boy."
I internalized so much from his sweet reminiscing. It became part of my own personal 'make-up culture.' Over time, my makeup philosophy grew. Probably items were added at the church I did grow up in. Other ideas came from the culture of my peculiar western hometown suburb at large. But I developed a philosophy of make-up. I just didn't realize my philosophy was regional. Nay--subcultural.
I learned a philosophy of make-up. I just didn't realize my philosophy was regional. Nay--subcultural.
When you wear so much make-up that people can tell you are wearing make-up, it signals you are vain. Right? Why would you advertise a character flaw? So my thinking went.
Yet-- here I was in a professional setting, being outcast over my economical clothes and sub-par make-up. I didn't know that happened outside of grade school. Not like this.
I wasn't going to feel any better about this culture shock until I got to the bottom of it. I had to process it accurately and grow.
How to Grow past Culture Shock
I brought the issues up repeatedly to my confidants on the phone. How can people spend so much time on make-up, when there is already so much to do? And, I couldn't figure out how to do make-up like that even when I tried. I ranted and I vented.
It felt bad being so out of place. Especially when fitting in at work seemed to demand going against my values. My "make-up culture."
Among flight attendants, it was like the definition of positive womanhood was upside down. I saw:
- Girls in their twenties schedule Botox treatments
- People openly declare they were in the hunt for a sugar daddy
- That mental breakdown over not packing the right high-end shoes
Meanwhile, classmates were making lifelong friends with each other, and my roommate didn't seem able to stand me. "Let me put it this way," I recall relating once. "I don't think I'm a boring person--but she sure makes me feel like it."
So much of my culture shock seemed to come down to the make-up thing. My ostracism, my not fitting in, my surprise. Of course, I'll never know if my roommate really did or didn't like me or why. Tons of dynamics come to play when you bring together people from every walk of life to train together six days a week for a month and a half!
But the make-up thing, I fixated on. Once we were all graduated and out there "on the line" (what flight attendants call being on duty), we only saw each other in uniforms. But the make-up remained. Culture shock at face value-- still there.
Finally, about fed up with hearing about it, one of my friends told me this.
"Listen. I don't know why the make-up issue with your coworkers is bothering you so much. But I can tell you this. It isn't the reason you think it is."
He advised me to reflect deeply. What really bothered me? If I could figure it out, it would help me to let it go.
That's the right kind of life advice. That kind of advice points you in the right direction but doesn't tell you what to do or how. That's frustrating, but right life advice usually is in practice.
I followed the guidance.
"Listen. I don't know why the make-up issue with your coworkers is bothering you so much. But I can tell you this. It isn't the reason you think it is." - my friend
Within a few weeks, I finally had my answer.
Culture Shock Makes You See Yourself
Yes, I was angry. Why? Because it felt like my dream job's workplace punished me for embodying what I was taught about being a good woman.
But the real anger-- the lingering part-- was more profound. And, it was simpler!
My coworkers had a skill that I wanted. I felt bad I wasn't good at something everybody around me was good at. The skill just happened to be, 'doing make-up.' Skills of any kind are the foundation of self-esteem.
Anytime you want a skill, the next step is simple. Learn it. Watch tutorials. Practice. Stick with it. Learn it.
I'm not better because I was bullied. It's because I recognized my envy and did something about it.
I'm still not the best at make-up by any means. But I gave myself my power back. I found an actionable item within my culture shock, and I'm a better person for it on two levels now.
- I have more style now, and more range in it.
- I try not to judge other people for their make-up & style anymore.
I showed up judging women's character by their make-up, too. Because I judged oppositely, I thought it was okay. When they judged me for my presentation, it was so shocking because, in reality, I was judging them first and harder. I thought they were materialistic. It turned into a stand-off in my mind.
That 'showing make-up is vain' stuff I believed is largely crap. I release that judgment. Whether a woman's style is minimalism or artistry, I recognize now that her character is still within.
Make-up and style are an expression, an extension, of a person's values. They are not what defines her value.
If you ever find yourself in culture shock--not fitting in, feeling unable to move past the confusion and hurt-- I hope that you look deep within and find the actionable reason why. And act on it!