Cul­ture cross­ing: dis­cover the key to mak­ing suc­cess­ful con­nec­tions in the new global era

The Smart Manager - - Reading Room - By michael lan­ders

How cul­ture shapes our thoughts and be­hav­iors

When you ask a five-year-old kid from the United States what a dog says, he or she will prob­a­bly say “woof-woof ” or “bow-wow.” Ask a kid living in Ja­pan, and you’re likely to get a “wan-wan.” Try it in Iran, and you’ll hear “hauv-hauv:’ In Laos they say “voon-voon.” It’s “gong­gong” in In­done­sia and “mung­mung” in Korea.

Be­sides be­ing a fun bit of knowl­edge to share at a din­ner party, an­i­mal sounds are a good ex­am­ple of how peo­ple from dif­fer­ent cul­tures are pro­grammed from an early age to in­ter­pret the same ex­pe­ri­ences in dif­fer­ent ways. It also un­der­scores how cul­tur­ally spe­cific per­cep­tions can get deeply lodged in our brains. Imag­ine if you sud­denly had to con­vince your­self that your dog was say­ing “voon-voon.” Un­less you are from Laos, it would prob­a­bly take a while.

Here’s an­other ex­am­ple: think about how you in­di­cate yes and no with­out us­ing words. For most peo­ple in the United States, the an­swer is sim­ple: nod­ding your head up and down means “yes,” and turn­ing your head left and right means “no.” In Bul­garia, how­ever, nod­ding your head up and down means “no,” and turn­ing your head left and right means “yes”!

Just for fun, here’s a chal­lenge for you, to test your own pro­gram­ming: try an­swer­ing the fol­low­ing two ques­tions with a non­ver­bal “yes” or “no,” but do it the Bul­gar­ian way, turn­ing your head side to side for “yes,” and up and down for “no.”

Do you want to win the lottery? Would you pay $100 for a ham­burger?

For most peo­ple, an­swer­ing these ques­tions is prob­a­bly more chal­leng­ing than you ex­pected it to be. After hear­ing, see­ing, be­liev­ing, or do­ing any­thing a par­tic­u­lar way through­out your whole life, it can be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to change the way you act, re­act, or per­ceive some­one else’s be­hav­iors. It’s all a re­sult of pro­gram­ming, some of which is bi­o­log­i­cally hard­wired and some of which is based on our ex­pe­ri­ences. Your cul­tural pro­gram­ming com­prises var­i­ous com­bi­na­tions of val­ues, per­cep­tions, at­ti­tudes, be­liefs, as­sump­tions, ex­pec­ta­tions, and be­hav­iors—and it plays a large role in shap­ing our iden­ti­ties, pro­vid­ing us

with in­struc­tions for how to nav­i­gate our lives.

In our ear­li­est years we’re taught things like lan­guage, man­ners, so­ci­etal do’s and don’ts, pun­ish­able be­hav­iors, and what sou nd a dog makes. As our cul­tural pro­gram­ming con­tin­ues to ac­crue and be re­in­forced over our life­times, it man­i­fests in the way we make de­ci­sions, prob­lem solve, per­ceive time, build trust, com­mu­ni­cate, buy and sell, and even how we die.

Some of our cul­tural pro­gram­ming has been handed down to us by an­ces­tors who lived thou­sands of years ago, but our pro­gram­ming is also con­tin­u­ously rewrit­ten by con­tem­po­rary com­mu­ni­ties, seek­ing to make sense of out­dated pro­gram­ming in a mod­ern con­text. We as in­di­vid­u­als have the choice to adapt our per­sonal pro­gram­ming to new sce­nar­ios and sur­round­ings, or not. It’s the tech­no­log­i­cal equiv­a­lent of up­dat­ing your op­er­at­ing sys­tem. If you don’t per­form the up­date, your func­tion­al­ity may be com­pro­mised.

De­spite the pro­found ways in which cul­ture in­flu­ences our per­sonas, most of us are barely aware of it—that is, un­til we en­counter peo­ple whose cul­tural pro­gram­ming is dif­fer­ent from ours. Our minds— our per­sonal op­er­at­ing sys­tems— may freeze up and crash just as our elec­tronic de­vices do. In­stead of man­i­fest­ing as a frozen screen, it causes us to feel un­com­fort­able, per­plexed, and frus­trated. We may shut down, ex­plode with emo­tion, or sim­ply give up and walk away— thereby miss­ing out on op­por­tu­ni­ties to build pos­i­tive re­la­tions and achieve suc­cess at work and in other as­pects of our lives. I call these kinds of en­coun­ters cul­ture crashes.

When cul­ture crashes hap­pen, it is of­ten a re­sult of un­con­scious in­com­pe­tence. More sim­ply put: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Ac­knowl­edg­ing that you are in the dark is ac­tu­ally the first step to in­creas­ing your self-aware­ness and avoid­ing the kind of “crash’’ just de­scribed. It means you are ready to open your mind to things you may never have con­sid­ered be­fore.

Some of our be­hav­iors are mod­eled on those we have seen or heard, like how to make an­i­mal noises or in­di­cate yes or no. But there are hun­dreds, if not thou­sands of other more nu­anced be­hav­iors whose cul­tural ori­gins are less ap­par­ent. These are things like how close you usu­ally stand to a friend or col­league while talk­ing, how promptly you show up for a party or busi­ness func­tion, or whether and when you look some­one in the eye.

While some of these habits can be chalked up to in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­ity or ex­pe­ri­ence, many of them are rooted in cul­ture. For ex­am­ple, when I ask peo­ple from the United States what makes some­one seem trust­wor­thy to them, one of the most com­mon an­swers is: “Some­one who looks me di­rectly in the eye.” So when some­one doesn’t look them in the eye, they im­me­di­ately be­gin to ques­tion whether or not this per­son is trust­wor­thy.

In many West­ern cul­tures, di­rect eye con­tact is viewed as a sign of re­spect and ex­pected be­tween peo­ple of all ages and gen­ders. But in parts of Thai­land, Oman, and Ja­pan, di­rect eye con­tact is of­ten con­strued as a sign of dis­re­spect, es­pe­cially be­tween gen­ders and peo­ple of dif­fer­ent ages.

I can clearly re­mem­ber my first ex­pe­ri­ence with eye con­tact con­fu­sion when I moved to Ja­pan to teach English in my early twen­ties. I was struck by how prac­ti­cally none of my stu­dents would look me in the eye, even those who were sig­nif­i­cantly older than I was. In the United States, this would have been con­strued as a sign of dis­re­spect, but in Ja­pan, avoid­ing eye con­tact with your teach­ers is a show of def­er­ence. I tried to train my stu­dents to look me in the eye when speak­ing English, and they even­tu­ally got the hang of it. Mean­while, I was busy try­ing to re­train my­self to avoid the eyes of my Ja­panese mar­tial arts mas­ter. It was much more chal­leng­ing than I an­tic­i­pated. ■

De­spite the pro­found ways in which cul­ture in­flu­ences our per­sonas, most of us are barely aware of it­that is, un­til we en­counter peo­ple whose cul­tural pro­gram­ming is dif­fer­ent from ours.

Michael Lan­ders Ber­rett-Koehler Pub­lish­ers 2017, 194 pgs, Pa­per­back

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