When I first moved to the Netherlands and was dating my current Dutch husband, I kept noticing things which were unusual to me. I often asked, “Why do the Dutch do this?” and “Why do the Dutch do that?”. He was surprised by all my questions as, for him, it was normal. Living in his own culture, he was like a fish in water, not realizing how the water looks, feels and tastes.
Part of the journey to developing cultural competence is learning about different cultures by travelling, reading, conversation and research. The cultural models of Erin Meyer, Fons Trompenaars and others are helpful general guides to understanding how cultures appear in our worlds through communication, decision making and other daily activities. By applying some of their knowledge and concepts, one can more effectively navigate the complexities of cross-cultural interactions with colleagues, customers and other relationships.
All good. But what about the culture you swim in? Having more appreciation for ‘the other’ is great but knowing thyself is equally important, and perhaps more difficult. Why? Because it’s normal, what is there to learn?! Spending time learning about your normal is a window to learning about yourself.
It Is Only Normal to You
In my courses aimed at developing cultural competence, I often include a section in which participants share aspects of their own culture with the other participants. This is always a favorite part of the course because the listeners learn about new aspects of the culture from people who really live there. In addition, the ‘country experts’ also enjoy the exercise because they are asked to reflect on their own culture and develop a language to explain.
When you understand your own culture, your capacity to work globally will improve dramatically. For instance:
- Knowledge of you. You will have a greater understanding of the impact your culture has on you. This insight will help you understand how people from other countries may perceive you and might explain some frictions from the past. You may also develop compassion for people from other cultures as you will appreciate how they may be ‘shocked’ by certain unique cultural characteristics.
- Be a guide to help others. When you can deeply understand and articulate the uniqueness of your culture, you become a guide for your contacts who may work with colleagues or other stakeholders. As they learn about the culture from you, they can go beyond the generalizations and really understand the country and how to be effective there. Your valuable insights can make a difference in their experience, and as this is often an iterative process, you also will continue to develop your knowledge and skills.
- Transformational learning. Mezirow considered that knowing oneself was the beginning of personal development, especially the ability to look deeply and critically at one’s assumptions and view of the world. When you begin to know yourself, you will have the chance to expand, grow, and successfully work and impact on a global level. This knowledge also gives you agency to go beyond your culture.
How to Uncover Your Normal
How does one get a true look at the cultural water he or she is swimming in? Here are some ideas:
- Observe your culture. Spend time being curious about your culture and observe common habits and behaviors. Perhaps take notes of what you observe and see what you notice over time.
- Read about your culture. Read books and articles written by people who are not from your culture and see what they find unusual and important. You may be surprised at what they consider funny or different.
- Conversations with others from your culture. Explore your culture with other people from your culture. After identifying certain practices or norms, try to uncover why they exist. Perhaps from history, geography or other influences. Everyone’s various perspectives may lead to some shared conclusions and understandings.
- Speak with colleagues outside your culture. Ask your colleagues about their experiences with your culture. Notice how you react – perhaps proud or defensive – and reflect upon why that might be. Perhaps they are touching upon a value arising from your culture which is important to you.
Cultures are complex and influence each of us in so many ways. Uncovering the layers of your own culture can lead to a more compassionate understanding for yourself and for others. Start the journey of discovery by looking around where you live and work to seek a deeper understanding.
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