Cultural Bloopers & Misgivings from an Experience in America

davidlivermore | April 11th, 2018 No Comments

Guest Post By Helga Evelyn Samuel

So, you speak English and you think a trip to an English-speaking country cannot be that hard, right? Surely not, because you’ve been there several years ago. On a recent work trip, I discovered, however, that such assumptions are quite careless at the least.

After a couple of days in a room full of North Americans (well, almost!), eating out with the group and socializing in the process, staying at a Canadian-Venezuelan’s place, and navigating through unfamiliar streets, here are some observations from my brief tryst with the American culture:

1. Assumptions are unwise. Never assume that everything is going to be like back home just because the people in the country presumably speak the same language as you! Expect everything to be different: right from the pedestrian crossing symbols to the way people cross roads to the food habits to mannerisms and customs, to the way people mean and interpret the same English you speak!

2. A little preparation goes a long way. Do your homework! So, you think why should you go prepared for a short work trip? What could possibly go wrong in just a few days, right? Actually, anything could go wrong depending on what the purpose of your trip is, who you are meeting, what important deals you are signing et al. When you go abroad on a work trip, you represent your company, and often times your country. You need to do some homework on what you could expect: talk to others who have been there before you, take some reading material on the country you are visiting with you on your plane ride. Also: know enough about your host country you are currently residing in if you are an expat.

3. Allow room for little surprises. How do you lock the bathroom door in your host’s old apartment? Which way do you turn the knob and why doesn’t it lock when you do it the way you do in Europe (panic attack!)? Step into the shower–now, which way does this knob turn? After fumbling a while and breaking into a cold sweat in the process, you manage to solve this great mystery! You later discover after a demo from the host on locking the bathroom door, that the last couple of times you had actually been very unsuccessful! Thankfully, nobody was home at that time! (Phew!) In the kitchen, you debate whether the water from the faucet is safe to drink, and when you reassure yourself that it cannot go wrong, you look in disgust at the very murky, gray-white liquid you’ve collected and are unsure if drinking it is going to kill you! (your gracious hosts later inform you that although water from the tap is safe, they filter it in this fascinating looking water container- and presto, that murky effect magically disappears!) Then you decide to make a sunny side up for breakfast, only to find that the mechanism of turning the knob on the stove is slightly different from what you do back home in Europe. Because within seconds you are nauseous by this overpowering smell of cooking gas. Not intending to set the host’s house on fire, you decide to safely settle for a banana for breakfast that morning! Fast forward to the day of conference. You need a coffee fix, and wander around looking for a stirrer. You find these strange, narrowly constricted white hollow tubes with bright red stripes that resemble straws. Surely these couldn’t be stirrers. They remotely bear any resemblance to the wooden, flat stirrers you are used to. Not wanting to look like an idiot, you politely ask a new friend where the stirrers are: he informs you that those narrow straw-like things are indeed the stirrers (hot flush of embarrassment!) Later you find out that the very same hotel has placed the familiar flat wooden stirrers on a shiny, jet black tray carrying your all-day coffee/tea (aka caffeine fix) supplies! Ha! You look at the familiar with a large toothy grin and run your fingers down the wooden stirrer and go ‘Sigh, just like back home!” The familiar somehow makes the heart very happy. Even something as small and silly as a mundane coffee stirrer! (tears of joy!)

4. An overdose of friendliness. The contrast is so stark that you simply cannot miss it! In The Netherlands, smiles are only reserved for people you know, people do not normally smile at strangers and very rarely exchange small talk. Those travelling by public transport always appear solemn and seldom indulge in any chitchat. A train/bus/tram ride to anywhere can be eerily silent (comfortably if you are used to it!), unless friends or family members ride together. Then you travel to the United States where everyone right from the doorman, the chauffeur, the Target store shop assistants, to even random strangers on the street are SO friendly and warm! On your first day, you are a bit suspicious since this behavior is not normal to you. By the end of the week however, you enjoy the warmth of the people so much that you suffer a temporary memory lapse at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam: you flash a big smile and offer a ‘Hey, how are you?’ to a total stranger waiting in line at the immigration. However, your polite overture is met by a shuffling of feet and a suspicious sideways glance (Ha, she probably thought you were nuts!)

5. Unfamiliar pedestrian signals. At first you are confused by the unfamiliar ‘white man walking’ and ‘red hand’ road crossing signals. In The Netherlands, these are a ‘green man walking’ and a ‘red man waiting’. And what does the countdown after the red hand mean? That this is your last chance to run for your life across the road? You look to fellow pedestrians for cues and find some sprint across quickly. You step forward to follow suit when you notice a car turns into your road during the countdown. A bit baffled and shaken, you adamantly decide to freeze in position on the sidewalk till you see the safe ‘white man walking’ signal again (shudder!). You do want to make it home in one piece after all! In The Netherlands and particularly in Germany, most people adhere to the pedestrian crossing rules. People respect the ‘red man waiting’ signal that they rarely cross–not even when there are no vehicles on the road!

6. Shocking supermarket facts. You wander around in Target trying to spot familiar groceries, let out an audible gasp at the unbelievably overpriced feta cheese, peppers, and salad ingredients. You are surprised by the numerous bread assortments–everything appears intriguing and some look rather unappetizing. You are impressed by the very friendly woman at the counter who even bags your grocery contents. In The Netherlands, the customer must hurriedly transfer her grocery contents into bags, so the next customer can be served immediately thereafter. A newcomer to the country has to learn to quickly shove grocery contents into shopping bags or be prepared to meet some impatient, disgruntled customers waiting in line. (Don’t tell anyone but you recruit your kids to bag the groceries with an ice cream bribe. It works like a charm every time!)

7. A warning to the foodies. Oh, the food! You are utterly delighted by the sinful array of culinary indulgences in the U.S. and eagerly dig into the large portion sizes. This is foodie H(E)AVEN (caps on intentionally)! Having been raised Indian, it is unconsciously ingrained in your mind to never waste any food on your plate (“Remember the many starving poor in India!”, your parents solemnly reminded you while growing up) and you gladly oblige–this is good stuff, after all! A week later though, when it is time to fly back home, you discover when your jeans tightly hug your lower body like a boa constrictor how quickly those extra pounds add up. Yikes!

8. Now, did you say English is universal? After a wonderful few days of getting to know new acquaintances and friends, you go around saying your goodbyes. Remember those familiar yet vital four and a half words that you reserve only for people you really like and want to sincerely make an effort to be in touch with? The magical “Let’s keep in touch!” You generously dish it out to a couple of people in the room with absolute genuineness. Only to find out much later that this sentence actually means “Goodbye, I DON’T like you that much!” in America! You recoil in horror at the subtle message you’d sent that week to the amazing, warm, friendly people whose company you had thoroughly enjoyed! (Oh nooo!)

9. Are colleagues friends? You learn that in America, colleagues rarely socialize or stay in touch as friends. They make acquaintances easily but rarely make ‘friends’ among colleagues. Such a stark contrast to The Netherlands where colleagues socialize every Friday night over the famed Dutch ‘borrel’: when drinks and conversations freely flow over raucous background music. Even strikingly different from your experience with former German colleagues you briefly worked with, who have been in touch since nearly twenty years when life took you places and are cherished friends. Some so close that you fondly call them ‘family’. Now, how do you define the connections with these delightful people you briefly hung out with in America? Colleagues? Acquaintances? Friends? How do you follow through on your word to ‘stay in touch’ with them? Your brain is certainly muddled dealing with this.

10. A little lesson on culture. Now, what do you do when the opportunity arises to travel back into the same country? A culturally intelligent person learns from previous mistakes, mentally readjusts to expectations, and applies past learnings to new experiences while still keeping an open mind to learn something new. It is important to remember, however, that your past experiences are not standards for others to gauge theirs against. Your experience does not necessarily have to be similar to another’s. It is also absurd to base your opinion on a country or its people from a few subjective experiences, so don’t be too hasty to translate your experiences into a “Do’s and Don’ts” list for that country. Be open to the sights, sounds and sensations that a new place brings. Dive in fearlessly, be prepared to fall on your face a couple of times, laugh about it, and learn from it. Have an open mind and a receptive heart. Savor the similarities. Respect the differences. Embrace the change.

Note: This article is purely based on personal experience and is merely written to entertain. However, some generalized content offers insight into learning how to deal with new and unfamiliar cultures.

  Helga Evelyn Samuel is the Founder & CEO of Curry & Culture Company based in The Netherlands, as well as a CQ Certified Advanced Professional.

7 Questions to Assess Your Perspective Taking

davidlivermore | March 15th, 2018 No Comments

Whether I’m talking with my kids, interacting with our staff, or speaking to a group of executives, one of the themes I talk about more than any other is the importance of “perspective taking”. Perspective taking is the ability to step outside our own experience and consider something from another person’s point of view. It’s something we do unconsciously all the time. What kind of gift would they enjoy? How is my colleague going to interpret this email? What does that group think about me? But we’re less likely to engage in perspective taking if the individuals with a different perspective aren’t part of our in-group. —

Research reveals that perspective taking is a skill that can be developed—and that’s good news. Perspective taking is one of the most critical skills needed to manage unconscious bias and lead with cultural intelligence. You can’t motivate people and negotiate effectively if you don’t know how others think and feel about something. And there’s mounting evidence that perspective taking makes a critical difference in whether diversity training actually works.

Most of us do perspective taking quite naturally with those from our in-group—our friends, loved ones, and people like us. But we’re less likely to slow down and consider another’s perspective if they are outside our in-group. Think of the age-old psychological notion of fundamental attribution error—the assumption that someone’s negative behavior stems from a character flaw while excusing the same behavior in ourselves due to external circumstances. Here’s how fundamental attribution error works: If someone’s phone rings in the movie theatre, my default assumption is that they’re a rude or forgetful person who is inconsiderate of others. But if my phone rings, surely people know that it’s only because I’m awaiting an urgent phone call in the midst of a crisis.  This isn’t my usual behavior! According to fundamental attribution error, I’m more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to people who “look like me.”

The greater the cultural distance, the more important it is to exercise perspective taking. Use this informal inventory to reflect on your perspective taking skill:

1. When giving someone directions to a restaurant, do you change the way you explain the directions based on whether the individual is an out-of-town visitor versus a local?

2. When telling a story, do you tell it differently based on the audience? (e.g., amount of details provided, references to things they do/don’t know about, etc.).

3. When providing instructions on how to do something, are you aware of how much the other individuals already know about this task? Do you over-explain the instructions even though they provide cues that they understand? Or do you use lingo that leaves them confused?

4. When an acquaintance asks where you live, do you give the same response to someone on the other side of the world as you do someone from your own region? (e.g., “Grand Rapids, Michigan” versus “In the central part of the U.S., near Chicago.”)

5. Think about a work challenge you’re currently facing right now. To what degree can you accurately describe the perspectives of 3-5 colleagues who are also facing the same challenge?

6. Identify an issue you feel strongly about (e.g., climate change, politics, gay marriage, etc.). To what degree can you offer a coherent argument that represents the opposite of your perspective?

7. How often do you say things like “As you know,” or “Given your experience in this area…”?

Perspective taking doesn’t mean you give up your own perspective or lack conviction. In fact, this is one of the critical differences between perspective taking and empathy. Empathy may go too far in some situations. A member of the special forces who empathizes with the enemy or a sales person who is distraught about a customer’s complaints may fail to fulfill the mission of their respective organizations. But there is no way to succeed without some understanding of the “other side’s” perspective.

Perspective taking is best developed in relationship. Many people change or at least reevaluate their dogmatic views about sexual orientation, religion, or politics when a friend or loved one is the one who represents the opposing perspective. Conversation and dialogue are the best ways to learn about another’s perspective. But there are some other practical steps you can use to develop the skill of perspective taking.

—Curate a more diverse social media feed. You’ll quickly see wildly different interpretations of the same current events.

—Use the ten cultural value dimensions to consciously consider the differences in how someone from either extreme would view a new initiative (e.g., an individual with a low uncertainty avoidance orientation may be more drawn to something new than someone who is high uncertainty avoidance).

—Use Bezo’s “empty-chair strategy” at important meetings to represent a perspective that won’t likely be present by the individuals in the meeting.

—When discussing a challenging issue with someone, see if each of you can articulate the other person’s perspective. Clarify whether you have an understanding of each other’s perspective.

—In the words of our friend and colleague Adam Grant, “Argue like you’re right. Listen like you’re wrong.”

Seek to understand. It’s one of our mantras at the Cultural Intelligence Center. We know that diverse perspectives x CQ creates better solutions. We don’t do it perfectly ourselves. But we’re resolved to keep at it. I hope you will continue the pursuit with us.

[See Chapter 3 in Driven by Difference to learn about the critical link between perspective-taking, CQ, and innovation. ]

Unconscious Bias: Not Just An Adult Problem

davidlivermore | February 20th, 2018 No Comments

Guest Post By Dr. Sandra Upton

Recently, there was an incident at a high school in my own hometown where a group of students found makeup in the back of a classroom that had been left previously in the day by another student. One student, who happened to be Caucasian, used that makeup to paint his face black. Someone took pictures and you can probably guess what happened next. They were posted on social media and instantly went viral, creating a firestorm of offense and criticism from other students and the community at large, particularly the African American community.

Some might say, “I don’t get it, what’s the big deal?” Well, if you understand a bit about U.S. race relations, wearing “blackface” was makeup that was used to portray very negative racial stereotypes towards African Americans in the 19th Century. The remnants of what it symbolizes are alive and well, making it just asif not moresensitive of an issue today as it was back then. Worse yet, these remnants can show up in the form of unconscious biases, particularly among our youth in K-12 (primary and secondary) schools. Students’ unconscious biases are not limited to race. They can include gender, socioeconomic status, weight, sexual orientation, religion, etc., all of which can significantly undermine a school’s efforts to create an inclusive environment where students thrive, regardless of their backgrounds.

What is Unconscious Bias and Where does it come From?

Unconscious bias can be described as unintended subtle and subconscious thoughts that happen to all of usand all of the time. Mahzarin Banaji, author of the book Blind Spots, describes them as ingrained habits or “mindbugs” of thought that lead to error in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions.

Banaji’s research reveals unconscious bias in children as soon as they have the verbal skills to be tested for it, which is around age four. Moreover, unconscious bias turns out to be roughly the same for pre-schoolers as for a senior citizen. This is consistent for children around the globe. The source of these biases is influenced most by the socialization that occurs at home, in school, and through the media. Unless there is intentionality in managing biases, they follow children throughout their primary and secondary education resulting in negative judgments, stereotypes, and actions towards people from different backgrounds. And as a result, kids put black makeup on their faces thinking it’s innocent while in fact it stems from implicit biases they have about people who look different from them.

So how can schools address unconscious bias? And how do we do so in culturally intelligent ways? Below are a few ideas. Let’s consider them at two levelsschool focused and student focused strategies.

School Focused Strategies

  • Recruit Culturally Intelligent Teachers and Staff 

Review your hiring and onboarding practices. Be intentional about hiring a diverse team of teachers and staff. Recruiting a school staff comprised of different backgrounds creates an opportunity for your diverse student population to see people on staff and in leadership who look like them.  But diversity staffing is not enough. Make sure that you hire people who share your value for diversity and inclusion, even if they are among the dominant culture. Everyone on staff needs cultural intelligence.

  • Provide Unconscious Bias Training for Teachers and Staff

Part of the reason students are able to act on their biases is because teachers and staff lack the awareness and skills to manage such challenges. Providing research-based unconscious bias training is a powerful strategy for exposing potential biases that faculty and staff might have, as well as equipping them to effectively deal with students who may demonstrate biases towards others. Use professional development time to provide the training so teachers and staff don’t feel like it’s one more thing being added to an already full plate. Be sure teachers from every subject matter are on board. Unconscious bias shows up in math, science, and PE as much as in the social sciences.

  • Engage Parents and Families

Children are not born biased. They develop biased thoughts and assumptions through what they are taught and exposed to. Invite families to discussions or trainings on unconscious bias and cultural intelligence. Help them recognize the value of such learning and development opportunities for both them as parents, as well as their children. Provide them with tools and resources to navigate difficult discussions at home. Educate them on why having culturally intelligent children will prepare them for success in the global and multicultural world that they will eventually be working in as adults. A parent or family in the U.S. needs to help their children understand that cultural demographics have shifted. Today, students of color are now the majority in U.S. public schools. Those currently in the minority population will become the majority within the next 30 years. A parent or family in Australia might remind their children that nearly 40% of students attending Australian universities were born oversees. Many of these students are from places such as India and China. Their children will be attending college and ultimately working alongside these students.

Don’t wait to engage families after an incident has happened. Be proactive. And when a situation happens, everyone should be clear and feel confident that it will be handled in a way that supports the school’s already demonstrated commitment to creating an inclusively excellent environment for all students.

Student Focused Strategies

  • Customize Classroom Instruction

Make sure the curriculum and other classroom resources reflect a wide range of cultures and perspectives that represent your student population and beyond. Use positive images and materials that intentionally counter stereotypical assumptions about certain cultural groups. Incorporate instruction about bias. Use music, art, and other creative mediums to expose the cultural values and contributions of different cultural groups.

  • Facilitate Cross-Cultural Interactions

Facilitate cross-cultural interactions between in-groups. Dr. Beverly Tatum’s classic book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?” in part reflects our preference for sticking with our in-group, but it also symbolizes the segregation that still happens in many U.S. schools. Underrepresented populations, which could also include other forms of diversity such as students with learning or physical disabilities, do not feel included or a valuable part of the school community. Create heterogeneous learning groups to include students from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Perspective taking has been shown to reduce unconscious bias. Challenge students to reflect on situations and conflicts from another person’s point of view. For example, how do they process negative images they see about certain cultural groups in the media? Why is the #MeToo movement from around the globe such a big deal? Eventually, move students towards developing their cultural intelligence.

  • Build in Accountability

Ignorance is not bliss. Everyone must play an active part in learning to become more culturally intelligent when interacting across cultures. As the saying goes, “when you know better, you do better.” Students, and anyone who is part of the school community, must understand that biased words and actions which negatively impact others are unacceptable and will have disciplinary consequences. These expectations should be communicated in a proactive and explicit way, not simply after an incident occurs. All students should clearly understand that before they “choose” to act on their biases and stereotypes, they will be held accountable and there will be consequences.

In summary, let’s not wait for our children to become full grown adults before we begin to tackle unconscious bias and its consequences. Instead, if we are going to honor our desire to develop global citizens and to be diverse, inclusive schools, we have a responsibility to ensure that unconscious bias and its unhealthy effects are eradicated from our educational institutions.

To learn more about our unconscious bias training programs, check out our Certification opportunities. Additionally, to learn about managing bias on the college campus, join our upcoming complimentary unconscious bias webinar.

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