Travel Can Be Hard On Your Emotions: An Interview with Marianna Pogosyan, PhD

travel can be hard on your emotions
Marianna Pogosyan, PhD, is an intercultural consultant and researcher, specializing in cross-cultural psychology.

I think we all want to travel more. We hear stories from our friends about how eye opening their fancy international trips were and how they feel they learned so much just by leaving their native country. We eventually get sick of them when they wistfully say “the architecture here just doesn’t compare to the cathedrals in France” for the seventeenth time or caption #wanderlust under their Instagram posts of random European alleyways, but we are secretly jealous. We think of traveling the world as this ultimate educational and enjoyable experience, but we do forget that there can be some downsides. It can be very expensive, yes, but travel, especially in the case of staying in another culture for an extended period of time, can also be emotionally taxing.

Marianna Pogosyan is an intercultural consultant and psychologist specializing in cross-cultural transitions. She helps clients ease their transition from one culture to another. Currently based in Amersterdam, she was born in Armenia and raised in Japan, so you could say she spent her whole life learning how to move between cultures. Clearly, she is an expert in this field and she eloquently discussed how travel can positively and negatively affect one’s emotions, especially their sense of belongingness.

Given your background, it is easy to see why you’re interested in the psychology of cross-cultural transitions. How has your upbringing been advantageous to your work?

Having been through multiple cross-cultural relocations has helped me to connect with others in similar circumstances. I can understand and empathize with their struggles and their joys, because I have experienced them myself, multiple times, as a child and as an adult. Oftentimes, this validation and acknowledgment of shared experiences becomes a catalyst for building trust with my clients.

What are some specific things your clients need consulting for when adapting to a new culture?

Moving across cultures can be rewarding and challenging for various reasons. While international relocations come with great opportunities, many people have worries about saying goodbye to friends and family at home and starting a new life in a new country. There are practical challenges like learning a new language, overcoming culture shock, making new friends, feeling settled and accepted at their new school or workplace. There are also psychological consequences of coping with change and transition. Adaptation takes time and effort, but ultimately, it can be very enriching. I think one of the most invaluable gifts of adapting to new cultures is the gain of experience, knowledge and insights: not only about the world, but also, importantly, about ourselves.

In your article, “On Belonging”, you talk about the I Am A Triangle group, the members of which frequently move between cultures and thus reappraise belongingness. Being born in Armenia and raised in Japan, it’s safe to say that you have done the same. How does being a part of many cultures make it easier or harder to feel belongingness? 

There are different ways you can look at “belonging” and what it means to you. Many expats report that after they have been abroad for a long period of time, they undergo a bit of a shift in their identity. They might feel like they don’t fully belong here or there, because when they are in Culture A, they feel like they belong to Culture B. And when they are in Culture B, they feel like they more belong to Culture A. It’s as if you are always missing the other culture and the other part of your identity. Alternatively, instead of a divisive outlook, you could try to adopt an inclusive approach and say, “I belong to both Culture A and Culture B.” When I was younger, I used to think that belonging was a very rigid concept – you either belonged or you didn’t. Sometimes, I even thought how much easier it would have been to identify with only one culture. But with experience, I have come to realize that belonging need not be so black-or- white: it can be fluid and flexible, and that there are different ways you can feel belonging. Everywhere in the world that I have called home has become a part of me, and thus, a considerable part of my sense of belonging. Besides, belonging to different cultures makes it more fun to watch the Olympic games, since there are more teams to cheer for.

I took a social psychology class with a professor who also specialized in cross-cultural psychology; she often discussed differences between interdependent and dependent cultures. Does the experience or importance of belonging differ between these types of cultures? If so, how?

Researchers have found that the way we construe the self can differ depending on our culture. In some cultures, like the United States and many Western European cultures, people have an independent self-construal. They are more likely to define themselves and their individuality through their internal traits and values. In other cultures, like many East Asian and Latin American cultures, the self is considered more interdependent. That is, people define themselves more based on their relationships. While a sense of belonging is an important aspect of well-being everywhere, in cultures where the self is more interdependent, belonging to communities and having harmonious relations with others is moreparamount.

In “How to Master Your Emotions”, you talk about maintaining a balanced body budget. Could you explain what a body budget is?

Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett defines body budget as your body’s energy resources that you are constantly spending and replenishing with your actions, thoughts and emotions. One of the most important tasks of the brain is to predict and regulate your body’s energy needs, as this is essential for your well-being and for keeping you alive. Researchers, including Feldman Barrett, have therefore suggested that there are networks in the brain (e.g., limbic regions) that are dedicated to this task. It is best to keep our body budget in good shape (see tips on how to do this in “How to Master Your Emotions”), since an imbalance in our body budget can lead to negative physical and psychological outcomes.

Is there a certain culture you’ve lived in that has different ways of handling emotions or considers different things about emotion more or less appropriate to act on (for example, in Inuit culture it is completely inappropriate to act on anger) than in Western culture? If so, how?

One of the most interesting things about living in different cultures for me has been witnessing how people around the world experience and display their emotions. For example, in Armenia, people can get very enthusiastic with their emotions – be it positive emotions like happiness, or negative ones like sadness. People’s expressions of emotion are seasoned with a lot of gesticulations and vocalizations there. In Japan, on the other had, the display of emotions appears much more restrained. You wouldn’t usually find friends and relatives kissing each other on occasions of joy or flaying their arms in elation, or displaying pride and praise when toasting to someone’s accomplishments. Nor is it common to hear public wails of grief or outbursts of anger. Non-verbal communication can also strikingly differ in those 2 cultures. For example, after having lived in Japan for a decade, I became unaccustomed to keeping direct eye-contact during conversations. Friends have told me that this habit of excessive nodding and averting my eyes from their faces mid-conversation was quite amusing to them when I first moved to the United States. The good thing is that we can re-adapt quite easily and use our learned social habits based on our current cultural context. But I still find myself bowing to kind strangers in the middle of Amsterdam every now and then.

Finally, what is your favorite place you’ve ever lived?

Every place has been special. But if I had to pick one, I would say Tokyo, because it feels most like home.

Pogosyan illuminated how people might feel when they leave their own culture and immerse themselves in a new one. I think this is important to understand when we in the United States live with so many misconceptions and fears about immigrants and people in other countries. They are normal people who, like you and I, can be excited to be away from their own culture but also scared; travel puts a lot of stress on people and makes maintaining a healthy body budget more difficult. Being able to empathize with foreigners or new citizens fresh from other nations allows us to humanize and understand each other, and I think becoming educated on people like Pogosyan’s work and intercultural psychology is a great way to work toward that.

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