Medium 9781626567108

Culture Crossing

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Thrive in the multicultural communities where you work and live

People, money, and information are flowing faster than ever across international borders, putting us all just one step away from a culture crash—that moment when you unintentionally confuse, frustrate, or offend someone from another culture. Are you struggling with trying to learn the customs, nuances, and hot buttons of every culture you might come into contact with? Michael Landers guides you toward a better solution: becoming aware of your own cultural “baggage.” You'll learn to sidestep the knee-jerk reactions that can get you into trouble and develop the agility to adjust your behaviors and expectations as needed. Through a mix of entertaining and instructive stories, valuable insights, and eye-opening self-assessments, Culture Crossing offers an essential primer for improving all your interactions with people from any background.

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Chapter One: Cultural Awakenings: How culture shapes our thoughts and behaviors

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How culture shapes our thoughts and behaviors

When you ask a five-year-old kid from the United States what a dog says, he or she will probably say “woof-woof” or “bowwow.” Ask a kid living in Japan, and you’re likely to get a “wan-wan.” Try it in Iran, and you’ll hear “hauv-hauv.” In Laos they say “voon-voon.” It’s “gong-gong” in Indonesia and “mung-mung” in Korea.

Besides being a fun bit of knowledge to share at a dinner party, animal sounds are a good example of how people from different cultures are programmed from an early age to interpret the same experiences in different ways. It also underscores how culturally specific perceptions can get deeply lodged in our brains. Imagine if you suddenly had to convince yourself that your dog was saying “voon-voon.” Unless you are from Laos, it would probably take a while.

Here’s another example: think about how you indicate yes and no without using words. For most people in the United States, the answer is simple: nodding your head up and down means “yes,” and turning your head left and right means “no.” In Bulgaria, however, nodding your head up and down means “no,” and turning your head left and right means “yes”!

 

Chapter Two: Me or We?: Recognize the differences between group and individual orientation, and why it matters

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Recognize the differences between group and individual orientation, and why it matters

On a balmy July afternoon in 2002, more than forty thousand U.S. baseball fans flocked to Milwaukee’s Miller Park to attend a highly anticipated Major League All-Star game. Legends such as Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were being honored, while superstars like Cal Ripken Jr. and Barry Bonds competed on the field. After eleven innings, the game finished “amid a sea of boos” when a 7–7 tie was called. Both teams had simply run out of pitchers.1

Players, fans, and the press were all outraged by the tie score. According to one ESPN reporter, “the outcry was such that you would have thought commissioner Bud Selig had walked to the mound and dropped puppies one by one into a vat of boiling water.”2 It’s often recalled as one of the most disappointing games in U.S. baseball history.

Ties had already been outlawed in regular season games, but as a result of what happened in Milwaukee, the rules were changed so that ties would no longer be permissible in All-Star games either.3 In the United States, a tie game in any sport is generally considered not only frustrating but also boring. Former professional football coach Eddie Erdelatz summed it up neatly when he issued his memorable remark: “A tie is like kissing your sister.” It’s just no fun.

 

Chapter Three :Say What?: Explore the nuances of verbal and written expression

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Explore the nuances of verbal and written expression

In the early ’90s the California Milk Processor Board struck gold with their now classic “Got milk?” campaign. The campaign brilliantly captured the hearts of millions of people in the United States by making so many of us suddenly crave a glass of cool, creamy milk to wash down our cookies or loosen the peanut butter from the roof of our mouth.

The success of this ad prompted the Milk Board to expand the campaign to Latino consumers living in California. They did what most people with a basic grasp of Spanish language would do: they translated it as “¿Tienes leche?” Shortly after launching the Spanish language campaign, however, they discovered that “¿Tienes leche?” actually translates as “Are you lactating?” Not the kind of milk they had in mind.1

Translation blunders can range from funny to embarrassing to offensive. They can also lead to costly mistakes, like the one made by the Milk Board. Literal language differences are the most obvious barriers to verbal and written communication across cultures. With help from a dual language dictionary, differences in word choice and grammar become more navigable. But that dictionary will get you only so far.

 

Chapter Four: What’s Not Being Said: Discover the hidden meanings of nonverbal communication

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Discover the hidden meanings of nonverbal communication

What’s a gesture that means the same thing in every culture? Any guesses? I’ve asked this same question of over twelve thousand people from about fifty countries. I define gesture here in the broadest sense, as a movement of part of the body to express an idea or meaning, without words.

One of the most popular answers to my question is “Nodding to say ‘Yes’ or shaking your head left-right to mean ‘No.’” Other common responses include the middle finger, the okay sign, and thumbs up. See Figure 4.1 for illustrations.

Figure 4.1: Hand gestures

People are often surprised when I tell them that those answers are all wrong. In fact, I’ve yet to find any gesture that means the same thing no matter where you are in the world. I almost always ask this question at the start of my workshops as a way of introducing the idea that it’s not safe to assume that any gesture means the same thing across cultures. This includes dozens of common gestures, such as how we point, how we beckon someone to approach us or tell them to go away, how we hold our arms when talking, and so on.

 

Chapter Five: Now or Later: How perceptions of time can warp across cultures

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How perceptions of time can warp across cultures

The island nation of Madagascar that lies off of Africa’s eastern shore is well known among biologists for its incredible diversity of animal and plant species. But for cultural psychologists, Madagascar is perhaps better known for its empty fuel pumps.

Øyvind Dahl is a Norwegian psychologist who observed stark differences in the way that people in rural Madagascar tend to view time, in contrast to most Western cultures.1 While conducting research there in the early 1990s, Dahl noticed that many of the fuel stations outside of the city were perpetually out of gas.2 A hose slung over the top of the pump was a telltale sign that there was no fuel to be had. Most of us probably would have chalked it up to a scarcity of petroleum in this developing nation, but Dahl’s curiosity was piqued, and he decided to ask the manager about it. His conversation went like this:

DAHL: Why isn’t there more gas?

GAS STATION MANAGER: Because it is empty. Look, nothing left.

 

Chapter Six: Respect, Rank, and Ritual: The implications of formality at work and in everyday life

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The implications of formality at work and in everyday life

I have a British colleague who loves to reminisce about his first week of work at a Silicon Valley computer maker in the 1980s. The office was staffed by employees who either hailed from California or had been living there long enough to have embraced the state’s relaxed style. You can imagine the staff ’s raised eyebrows and stifled chuckles when my friend walked in dressed in a three-piece suit. To them, he looked as if he was heading to a black tie affair or a James Bond look-alike contest.

Throughout the day his colleagues joked about his attire, assuming he would get the message that he could wear more casual clothes. He recalls many of the staff being dressed in jeans and flip-flops. The next day he lost the vest but kept the suit and tie. More encouragement by his coworkers led him to ditch the jacket and swap it for a sweater. When he was pressed further to relax his style, he finally hit his limit and shot back, “Just so you know, for me, this is informal!”

 

Chapter Seven: Core Values: Taking your cultural awareness to the next level

ePub

Taking your cultural awareness to the next level

I am a TCK. Chances are you’ve never heard that term before. But you probably know other TCKs. They are everywhere. Barack Obama is one. So are Uma Thurman, Kobe Bryant, and the late Freddie Mercury. You might actually be one yourself. Don’t worry—it’s not contagious, although it has been known to cause identity crises.

TCK is short for “third culture kid.” It’s a term coined in the 1950s by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem and neatly explained by another sociologist named David C. Pollock: “A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”1

Today, the acronym is sometimes modified to ATCK (adult third culture kid) to include people who have been deeply affected by multiple cultures as adults. As I mentioned in the introduction, an estimated 244 million people currently live outside their country of origin—a number that will undoubtedly continue grow in the wake of factors such as increased migration and economic globalization.2

 

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