Your cultural conditioning is something that has been ingrained into your psyche over the years from the time you were born. The environment you grew up in influenced to a strong degree how you think, communicate and behave. By passing on their wisdom to you, the people in your surroundings have made you a functioning member of society. Without this constant cultural conditioning, you wouldn’t be able to behave appropriately in any circumstances that come up during your daily life.
And yet, this cultural conditioning also is something that is specific to the cultural environment which you grew up in. Many of the thought patterns, communication patterns and ways of behaving which are beneficial to you in your country of origin, are doing more harm than good in a new cultural environment.
Take the idea that Germans become ingrained into their mind that frankness and straight communication always lead to the best results as an example. If you were to apply this idea in Indonesia, where people are indirect in their ways of communicating, this behavior would have incredibly negative effects. People would feel offended. They would start avoiding the subject. Communication with you would break down. You wouldn’t understand what is going on until it is too late and the whole cooperation in the matter would end.
Once you are moving to a new cultural environment, you will have to break your own cultural conditioning.
Overcoming your cultural conditioning doesn’t mean that you need to rid yourself in every way of who you are and how you have grown up. Rather, it means that you are letting go off ineffective strategies in the new environment and adapt new strategies that are grounded in both your host culture as well as your culture of origin. Let’s now discuss five strategies for overcoming your own cultural conditioning.
Strategy #1: Always test your assumptions
There are two types of assumptions that I am referring to here. Firstly, there are the assumptions you make about the behavior and thought processes of the people in your host culture. Secondly, there are the assumptions you have about how other people perceive your behavioor. Both of them need to be tested.
Let’s say that you are a HR professional interviewing a Japanese candidate for a job. The candidate never looks into your eyes and instead keeps looking down. He also only ever talks when asked a question. You perceive this as a lack of confidence, as well as a lack of motivation on his part to work autonomously.
If you leave assumptions like these untested, then they can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings. If you had used different strategies to test your assumptions about the candidates’ behavior, you could have quickly found out that in Japan, both looking slightly lower than the eyes and only talking when asked to do so are both signs of respect towards a superior. As such, for Japanese people these behaviors are expected from candidates during job interviews. In other words, the assumptions you made would have misled you into attaching the wrong characteristics to a perhaps great candidate.
You always need to be wary of your assumptions about behavior from people with a different cultural background from yours.
If you are unsure, there is a lot of ways to find out. Observe a number of people from the cultural background and see if you can find any patterns. Ask other people from that culture what their opinion is about the matter. Find people who have experience with the culture you are trying to understand and ask them about their experiences. At the end of the day, you need to treat any assumption about another culture as a hypothesis and then test it, until you are satisfied with the answer.
Strategy #2: Expose your own cultural perspective to constant criticism
One strategy in the business world is to create work groups that are taking your business model apart. They try to find any point of weakness, any disadvantage of the business model that you develop in order to build a stronger and more resilient plan. In that case, you adapt your business model according to these criticisms in order to build something more solid that takes any potential points of weakness into account.
What I am suggesting is to expose your own cultural framework to a similar exercise. Of course I am not suggesting that you find a group of people who only examine your cultural framework and criticize you for different points.
Rather, what I am saying is that you regularly explain your perspective on things very clearly and carefully to the people around you, and then to ask them to explain their own perspective in vivid detail.
The important point here is that both of you explain your perspectives in full. It makes sense to ask the “why?” question on a regular basis here. Keep asking why the other person sees a particular issue in this particular way, and sooner or later you will reach the deep-seated motivations that are underlying the behavior of the cultural environment that you are trying to understand.
The more criticism you expose yourself to, the more you will question your own cultural conditioning. You will eventually come to the point where you will question your whole worldview, and it is at this point that you may slowly start to become a completely different person.
Strategy #3: If you were to suspend judgment completely, what would be the “right” thing to do?
Often, we are falling into the trap of placing value judgments onto any particular issue. We say that this way of behaving is “right” because of this and that reason. Or the other person’s behavior is wrong because of this and that reason.
What we are forgetting is that cultural behaviors are behaviors which have been ingrained into us by the people around us in order to function in regards to a particular environment and under particular circumstances.
If all behavior depends on a particular context, then there is no “right” or “wrong” behavior.
As such, it is very important to learn how to suspend judgment when communicating across cultures. Rather, you should ask yourself what the most effective strategy for behaving would be in the particular context that you are currently in. Behavior can be “wrong” in a particular context simply because it will not lead to the results that you are attempting to achieve because of the different expectations people have in this situation.
Constantly ask yourself: what is the behavior that will lead to the desired results in this particular context?
Strategy #4: Focus on comparing commonalities as well as differences
The default mode in which we operate when we are confronted with people from another culture is this: we expect the behavior that we are used to, and then we are shocked about the differences when we see them.
Throughout the years, we have become so used to being able to predict the behavior of those around us, that in the beginning when we are exposed to a different cultural environment, we are surprised that this is no longer the case. It puts us into a state of shock, which ultimately focuses all our attention on those differences.
Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of the behavior that would lead to successful outcomes in a cross-cultural environment. We should expect different behavior, and then focus on how we can build commonalities that drive our cooperation forward.
Part of doing that is to develop an understanding of the differences between both sides, where they are coming from, what different values people attach to the different behavior, why they are acting in this particular way. But then we need to remind ourselves that at the end of the day, people are only acting this particular way because it is the behavior that has been ingrained into their psyche from their childhood, and usually it is for a good reason.
Here, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
- what are the differences between my cultural framework and “theirs”?
- what are the common motivations for both of our behaviors? What do we have in common?
- how can we create a synergy between the differences and similarities?
- what steps can I take to focus the attention of this communication encounter on our commonalities such as common goals and shared ideas?
What are the next steps?
Now, I want you to think back to several points in time where you have been in a cross-cultural situation which you think didn’t lead to the outcomes that you expected. What were the reasons for why this situation failed? How has your own cultural perspective differed from the other party? What could you have done to adjust your behavior in a way to lead to the results that you were looking for? What lessons can you take from this event for the future in order to be able to integrate your own cultural perspective with that of the other side?
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