Sue Frantz

Place Lag

Blog Post created by Sue Frantz on Dec 30, 2015

Place lag (n.): “[T]he imaginative drag that results from our jet-age displacements over every kind of distance; from the inability of our deep old sense of place to keep up with our airplanes.”

                              - Mark Vanhoenacker (2015), Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot


I am currently reading a rather poetic memoir by a 747 pilot. As someone who frequently changes place, Mark Vanhoenacker has spent much time reflecting on this experience. Anyone who has flown across time zones has experienced jet lag. But if you’re staying for a while, you adjust to the local time zone. Flight crews often don’t bother trying to change. If you’re there only for a day or two, it makes more sense to just stay on your home time.


Place lag, coined by Vanhoenacker, is different. Imagine starting your day in Seattle, flying several hours, and then getting off the plane in Tokyo. It’s disorienting. As Vanhoenacker notes, we aren’t built to experience this much cultural change in this short of time. Evolutionarily-speaking, we can easily handle gradual change that comes at the speed of walking. Anything that happens faster than that is much more difficult for our brains to process.


Why is this practically sudden change in location so disturbing? Any time we experience a cultural change, we encounter a new set of schemas. The more different those schemas are, the greater our culture shock. But even if we are familiar with the culture we have just been dropped into, it takes time to load the right cultural schemas. If you get to stay for a while, you have time to complete the processing. If you’re part of the international flight crew, though, you have only just started to load the right set, when you’re back on the plane headed to another part of the world with an entirely different set of schemas.


Of course we don’t have to travel halfway around the world to experience place lag. Your first generation college students may experience this when traveling between home and college – even commuter students. Their college lives are likely very different from their home lives. What is crucially important at college is not understood at all by family members who have not attended college. Ask your students, in pairs or small groups, to discuss schema differences between home and college. For example, are the kinds of conversations students have with other students different from the kinds of conversations they have with family members? Is the humor different? After discussion, invite students to share examples with the class.