Cultural awareness starts with yourself

The Unmixed View of the World

Many articles or even workshops on cultural etiquette and ‘how to do business in X country’ become a list of dos and don’ts, a little tickbox exercise of everything that is different or ‘quaint’ about the other culture.  I suppose there are good reasons for that: time constraints, word limits, or the unwillingness to dig deep within yourself.

However, I do profoundly believe that the first step in understanding other cultures is to become aware of  your own values, assumptions and -dare we say it? – foibles.  Only when you understand what you are made of, can you begin to grasp and appreciate what others are made of. 

Some of these assumptions are so deeply ingrained that we are unable to distance ourselves from it or even to see it.  So, in my workshops or coaching sessions, I will often throw in some provocative statements or questions to reveal some of these cultural blind spots. 

For instance, when I have a predominantly British audience in the room, I will ask them what they think that foreigners find most puzzling or annoying about living in the UK.  Typical answers include the weather or poor customer service, but in fact these are the things that annoy British people most.

So what is the answer?  Simple:  unmixed taps and carpet in the bathrooms.

When I finally give the answer, expat audiences laugh or give a groan of recognition, while the British usually are completely mystified.  Why would anyone pick up on these trivial points?  Surely carpet is softer and warmer on your feet when you come out of the bath?  And just what is wrong with unmixed taps anyway?  (If you are still baffled, pick the nearest Continental European and ask him or her about this.)

Yes, these might be innocuous examples of mild irritation, but do not underestimate their effect on a long-term relationoship.  What else might be annoying our foreign colleagues, employees, partners?  What else makes perfect sense to us but  could be causing them embarassment, unease, anxiety?  Shed some light on your blind spots and, who knows, you might even change your taps!

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2 Comments

Filed under Business cultur, Globalization

2 responses to “Cultural awareness starts with yourself

  1. Its starts with self! Why do I find it strange in NL – that in downstairs cloak/toilet is there only a cold tap?

    Why do I expect customer service and civility here in NL – its the same service for them so why should it be different for expats? But why put up with it?

    Why am I frowned upon for having closed voile curtains in the day time – I like my privacy but I should be creating a picture of contentment and gezilligness to the poor cold Dutch person walking along the street not shutting them out!

    I find swallowing cold fish repulsive….as a Brit I expect it to be battered and hot!

  2. WOW! Yes, I agree. I also struggle with such kinds of trainings (sitting in them as a student and also giving them as a teacher/coach) for the same reasons. I have even forgone giving such trainings that were based on assumptions because I think boiling things down to stereotypes actually don’t give people enough credit for being human.

    However, I do love your approach- trying to see things from the other’s point of view. Sometimes even when we want to it appears impossible to because we can’t ‘see beyond the problem’. As you said, why would Britishers think a rug in the bathroom is uncomfortable… when they see it as comfy for the feet! In India it’s common to have water on the bathroom floors, and sure Britishers have a problem in Indian bathrooms!!

    Thanks for sharing this!

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