Today it somehow made click for me. When I was talking with one of my acquaintances, she explained to my why she had only one hour time to get lunch with me in every detail you could imagine. She went round and round and round, but my question only was how much time she had so that I could plan where we would get lunch (I wanted to invite her). It made me nervous, very nervous. Then suddenly I realized that I often had this feeling when I was talking with Asians.
And that’s when I finally got it: “Oh, my German value of efficiency is being violated by the Asian style of contextual communication. They have to explain the whole situation and provide all the background information instead of just answering the question, while I just want to know when she has to get back to work”. Wow. It took me three goddamn years to realize this – how much else I must have missed about myself.
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not – but this realization just came one day after I did a thorough reading about meta-cognition: thinking about thinking. Of course I knew the term before this, but I did not exactly understand how crucial it is for our daily live’s. Only one percent of our thoughts is in our consciousness – this means that 99% of our processing power is something we do not even notice.
The thing is: we can get thoughts from our subconsciousness to our consciousness – if we focus on them. And this is highly important, because only by directing our thoughts in that way, we can control what happens with the other 99% processing power of our brain. In other words: meta-cognition helps us to give direction to our subconsciousness, and with that it makes all the difference in terms of acting effectively- and adapting to our environment.
While I always understood intellectually that Germany values efficiency and Indonesians speak in an indirect, highly contextual way, and what implications this has on our communication, I somehow never realized the consequences it has on me personally. That was because I never analyzed the feeling of impatience when somebody here was, in a way, speaking around the bush. What I lacked was self-awareness: the ability to recognize my feelings and their implications on my behavior. I think that somehow just reading about meta-cognition triggered me to monitor my own thoughts more carefully.
A model developed by Shalom H. Schwartz
What I want to say is that I recommend you to learn more about meta-cognition and self-awareness – for example by reading David DiSalvo’s great book “Brain Changer“, or Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence“. I strongly belief that the knowledge of the concepts itself is a first step in terms of making you monitor your own emotions and thoughts more closely. Plus, an understanding of the basic values as described by Shalom Schwartz also helps you to grasp your own values and those of your host culture. I suggest you to look at these values and think about which of these are the most important to you – as opposed to the culture you live in.
For example: the German, more individualistic culture where I come from places a stronger value on individualism than the more collectivist Indonesian culture. Schwartz says that the goal of achievement is to “demonstrate personal success through demonstrating competence”. People who value benevolence, on the other hand, aim to “preserve and enhance the welfare of those with whom is in frequent personal contact”. And yes, I can say that based on my experience for most Indonesian people this is very important.
But what I personally wonder about is this: Schwartz says that these values are to be placed on a continuum – meaning that values on opposite sites of the circle are opposing each other. While this somehow makes sense to me: people who strive for personal success and power are often willing to sacrifice and undermine others, I wonder whether this is always the case. In Confucianist societies the boss acts as the father figure. Yes, he or she has the unquestioned power, but in return his or her colleagues will expect to be taken care of well. In making decisions, the boss has to consider what’s in the best interests of everybody. He or she will do everything possible to make employees happy, because that’s the responsibility of someone with power.
To me personally this contrast reflects the idea of Ying and Yang. Everything in the world is opposed by something else – and these contradictions complement each other. I think this shows us that adapting to a new culture does not need to undermine our values. Sometimes we act in ways that oppose our most important values, especially when we live abroad, to adapt to our environment. But in no way does this mean that we act against who we are. Instead, we adapt our behaviour to the situation and what’s appropriate at that time. It’s exactly like Schwartz says: “Values influence action when they are relevant in the context”. Sometimes personal success is more important, and sometimes to take care of those around you. It us up to you to decide.