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!