Tag Archives: cross-cultural

12 Things I Learnt at the Washington Conference

Just back from the wonderful FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference in Washington DC http://www.figt.org/2011_conference and I am sitting in groggy but rapt contemplation of all that I have seen, heard, encountered and learnt.   I feel somewhat like a boa constrictor who has just swallowed a very large animal and now needs a bit of time to digest.

Conference logo

Washington DC. March 17-19

Here are just a few of the small and big revelations of the past five days, in no particular order:

1) American conferences are slick, well-organised and colour-coordinated, even when run by volunteers.  But yes, the air conditioning is fierce…

2) With concurrent sessions, there will always be clashes between two or even three or four sessions that you really, really want to attend.  Resign yourself to the fact that you cannot possibly see them all.  Or, even better, go with a friend, divide up the sessions and ensure both take copious notes.

3) Interculturalists love to talk and meet people!  It was the friendliest atmosphere I have ever experienced at a conference.  The emphasis seemed to be upon collaboration rather than competition (which, having been to some academic conferences, is not always the case).

4) Despite your good intentions, you will come home loaded with books.  Yes, I could have bought them afterwards on Amazon and had them delivered to my house, but what would I have read on the plane?  And how else would I have got the authors to sign them?  Expect some book reviews shortly.

5) You’ll get a lifetime’s worth of memorable quotes.

6) Everyone hates the term ‘trailing spouse’.  Thanks to Jo Parfitt, writer,  publisher and global nomad http://www.joparfitt.com/ ,who suggested that maybe we should refer to this category as STARs (spouses travelling and relocating) and STUDs (spouses transitioning under duress).

Now, excuse me while I settle back to digest some more….

Ah, I hear you say, but where are the remaining 6 things you have learnt?  There will be another blog post later this week about this, I promise!

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Top 7 Cultural Generalisations and Beliefs

There are some pervasive beliefs about cultural similarities and differences that I hear bandied around not only by people I meet casually, but even (bless them!) by some family members who should know better after living with me as an aunt, cousin or daughter for so many years.  While none of them are downright racist or malicious, uninformed good intentions can be just as damaging. 

Multicoloured and multicultural

Variety is the spice of life

1. Live and let live, I always say…

Great in theory, but in practice it often covers the sin of not being at all interested in the Other, and wishing to banish them to some kind of ghetto.  Out of sight is out of mind, but that is not living together in good cultural integration.

2. Underneath it all, we are all human…

Again, beautifully idealistic statement, but how often is this used to deny difference?

3. Everyone travels nowadays, so we all know different cultures.

I’ve written a blog post about this before https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/being-made-redundant/ but I will just reiterate that, although travelling does broaden the mind, it depends on whether you travel with an open mind and try to get to know the different countries on a more in-depth level than just the beach, the Hilton, the Margarita…

4. Everyone speaks English, so why should I bother to learn anything else?

Estimates vary (and figures can change rapidly), but indications are that between two thirds and three quarters of the world’s population does not speak English.  Besides, the English that does get spoken in different parts of the world may be quite different from what native speakers might be used to.

5. English is THE language of the Internet.

It certainly used to be, but the percentage of Web content that is entirely in English has decreased dramatically in recent years, while Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and German are catching up.

6. I have nothing against these people in general, but why can’t they be more like us (when it comes to democracy or religion or crowd behaviour or business etiquette or…)?

This is the big one and a source of frustration to many when interacting with different cultures or setting up a business abroad.  All I can say is that my parents, husband or children are not very much like me either… although I have nothing against family in general!

7. I’ll be fine when I move abroad, I don’t need any preparation.

Some will be and some will not.  Those who are fine may be so purely by chance, or because they have a company or spouse or friend who makes life easy for them.  Some may be ‘in survivor mode’, rather than truly enjoying their life in another country.  Some may be counting the days until they move back.  Isn’t that sad?  Aren’t those years too part of your life?

While it is true that no one can prepare you for every single eventuality and emergency of your life abroad, having some idea of what to expect will ensure that you don’t rely entirely on luck to thrive in your new location.

What other generalisations have you heard which amused or frustrated you?  And how do you respond to them?

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Do not overestimate the importance of culture!

Here is one of the key pieces of advice that I hear most frequently given to people who are thinking of relocating abroad or starting a partnership with a foreign company: ‘Do not underestimate the cultural differences.’  I have repeated this myself, like a mantra, particularly for those who believe they will be operating in nearly identical cultures (UK and US, for instance, or US with Australia).

Always culture...

However, sometimes we can fall into the other extreme.  Blame everything on culture! 

  • No wonder they didn’t laugh at our jokes and we couldn’t create rapport, they come from a culture where humour is not appreciated. 
  • Typical, I can’t believe a word that person says, he comes from a culture where they never say exactly what they mean. 
  • We failed to get the contract because they asked for too many facts and figures, they are too detail-oriented.

Isn’t there a danger there that we are slipping back into stereotypes?  I have suffered from that stereotyping myself, even though I don’t really fully belong to any culture.  And I believe a good many of us nowadays are the products of multiple cultural influences.   I myself have never met or spoken to Hans Average German or Ms. Everyday Russian (despite their frequent appearances in James Bond films).    It is reductionist, over-simplistic and, to be frank, rather insulting to believe otherwise!  We are always establishing a relationship with an individual, rather than a nation.

Besides, isn’t cultural difference sometimes just a convenient excuse for us when we don’t do our homework? 

  • Perhaps our humour did not work because our jokes were actually not very funny. 
  • Perhaps that person is saying exactly what they mean but we don’t want to hear what they are saying. 
  • And perhaps we did not get all our facts and figures straight and just waffled on pointlessly.

Can you think of any other examples where you blamed culture for misunderstandings but ultimately discovered it was a personal thing?  Do share your experiences with us (I’ve got a couple of good anecdotes myself).

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The Cross-Cultural Wizard

The Times called him ‘the ultimate hybrid’, which sounds rather strange and robotic until you remember that this man does run two of the biggest car manufacturers in the world, Nissan and Renault.  But to me he is a cross-cultural wizard.  Who am I talking about?  Carlos Ghosn, of course!

Carlos Ghosn in Action

So am I just adding to the column inches of all the journalists and even market analysts who have fallen under his spell, even if they don’t quite fall in love with the first mass-market electric car, the Nissan Leaf?  Well, I think he is a remarkable example of that new breed of ‘global leader’ and we are going to need many more of those in the future.

Born in Brazil to a French mother and Lebanese father, he spent part of his childhood in Lebanon, then went to study in Paris and started his working life as a trainee at Michelin.  I remember when he took over as president of Nissan in 2000, my Japanese contacts (and many others) were predicting failure.  There was no way Nissan would accept to play second fiddle to Ghosn’s Renault responsibilities and loyalties.  But ten years later, he has surprised them all. 

He has managed to avoid a full merger of the two companies, and I do genuinely believe that is not because it wouldn’t be good for the stock price or market share or marketing strategies.  Because it might well benefit all of those, at least in the short term.  But I think he has listened to his employees and understood the different cultures and the strong sense of identity that each company has.  There is no point in creating synergy by enforcing sameness.  Instead he shares his time, but I believe above all his listening skills and his enthusiasm, very skillfully between the two companies, navigating easily between the two national and corporate cultures and even languages.  He learnt Japanese, which is by no means an easy language, quite late in life.

What other examples of such leaders can you think of?  Not many.  I am hopeful, however, that the younger generation will think Ghosn’s trajectory is not exceptional, but the norm.

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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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Top Qualities of a Cross-Cultural Communicator

I’ve been writing several papers and talking about how to communicate successfully across cultures lately.  I’ve come up with a list of essential qualities for cross-cultural communicators, but I am sure there are many more that I could have added to that list.  I am not claiming, by the way, to be proficient at all of the qualities below – there is always more work to be done and more to be learnt, after all.

1) Openness and genuine curiosity – by that I mean, a warm, caring curiosity rather than its nosy twin

2) Asking questions instead of assuming you know all the answers – perhaps a touch of humility

3) Flexibility and adaptability

4) Leave your ego at home (but not your values, you don’t have to agree and condone everything you see)

5) Patience – it can take a long time to break down barriers

6) Resilience – to recover from leaving your friends as soon as you’ve made them and to find ways to keep in touch even so.

7) Be prepared – do your homework before you go to another country. 

BUT be prepared to be surprised – no matter how well you do your homework!

8) Humour – ability to laugh at yourself and at others, although you don’t have to share your jokes with foreign audiences.

Anything else I should have mentioned?  What has been the character trait or quality that has kept you sane when travelling, moving, negotiating or marrying abroad?

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What is it about small nations?

Let’s continue for just a few seconds with the World Cup theme: and how the ‘small’ footballing nations (I say small in quotation marks, because by no stretch of the imagination can the US or Australia be considered small nations other than in footballing history) have upset the established giants of this tournament.  How is that possible?  Have all the favourites become too complacent?

Dejected German fans after match with Serbia

One of my friends suggested, somewhat cynically, that players from lesser-known countries have to demonstrate their skills so they can get a lucrative contract with a club abroad.  That is true, but it’s part of the bigger picture, namely that the ‘underdogs’ have little to lose and always something to prove.

This holds true outside the world of football, of course.  If you come from a small nation like the Netherlands or Romania, and no one can speak your language, you take great pride in the fact that you are able to speak several.  If you are a Chinese student in the US, you work doubly hard to prove that you are equal or better than the Americans.  You delight in confounding expectations and stereotypes.  ‘Think I am lazy or corrupt or unpunctual because I am Italian or Greek or Lebanese (insert adjectives and country names as you see fit)?  Well, that will show you, huh!’

You have a chip on your shoulder.  In a good way.  And it’s easier to be agile and surprising when nobody sees you coming.  Because sometimes the reassuring ‘big nation’ in your background is a lumbering elephant that brings with it overwhelming expectations and knocks down trees.

Have you ever felt the ‘big nation’ or ‘small nation’ presence in your life?  Have you tried to confound expectations?  Share your experiences here, I’d love to hear them.

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