The lessons we learned from simply being in any particular environment put us into a mental cage.
People primarily learn through cultural transmission. This process can happen through a large variety of means such as communicating with other people, observing and imitating other people’s behavior, reading books, watching movies, going to seminars and pretty much any other way of interacting with the thoughts of other people that you can imagine.
This ability allows us to tap into the wisdom of hundreds of generations that came before us. At the same time, however, it imprisons us into a mental cage on the basis of the environment we are exposed to on a daily basis.
People do not have truly ‘original’ ideas
The thoughts and ideas that we have are always a result of the ideas, values, beliefs, perspectives, and assumptions that we already have internalized about the world. While different people have different thoughts and ideas on the basis of the unique combinations of these external factors that they have internalized, they are always within the constraints of things they have learned from other people prior to this.
We can not really say that people have truly ‘original’ ideas. Rather, they are making unique combinations between existing ideas to create something new
The problem is that most people are exposed to fairly similar environments throughout most of their lives. Yes, they may go to different universities. Join different clubs. Work in different companies. But still, they are exposed to an overarching cultural framework which is guiding their lives.
People internalize this cultural framework throughout their whole life as part of the process of socialization. Breaking out of it is difficult and requires a sudden and extreme exposure to a completely different perspective on the world.
Even with a lot of exposure to other cultures, many people are unable to break free from their cultural conditioning
The first step to breaking free from our own cultural conditioning requires that we cognitively and emotionally understand that the majority of people in the world do not actually perceive the world in the same way that we do. At the same time, we need to have the willingness to acknowledge the fact that these other perspectives are just as equally valid as ours.
Once this has happened, the famous stage of culture shock sets in.
Unfortunately, most people don’t understand what culture shock really is. As a result, they are trying to avoid it as it creates negative feelings within themselves. But in reality, going through a period of being in a stage of culture shock is a necessary requirement in order to develop a new perspective on the world.
Step #1: In order to create something new, one first has to destroy
When you want to build a new building, you first have to destroy the old one that is in the way. When you want to find a new way of solving a problem, you first have to figure out the problems with the old way. And when you want to gain a new perspective of looking at the world, you first have to break apart your old one.
This is culture shock. The feeling that sets in as we start…
… questioning our most central values, beliefs and assumptions about the world.
… ridding ourselves of those beliefs that we deem to be detrimental to our own development.
… thinking about how these strange new ways of thinking may fit into our own worldview.
Naturally, the feelings that are resulting out of these processes are very negative. After all, they make us question our whole sense of who we are. For a while, we are turned into an emotional wreck, experiencing feelings such as sadness, anger, confusion, frustration, fear and so on and so forth. Furthermore, we can not stop thinking about some of the biggest questions in life such as who we are, what we believe in and what aims we have in life.
For many people, the natural response to these feelings is to run away from them.
While they may have been very curious about the ‘other’ culture up until that point, they are now starting to feel feelings of resentment towards it. They then start more withdrawing themselves from the new culture like a snail withdraws to its shell, hoping to avoid the external danger. Typically, this results in them mostly staying within their ‘expat bubble’ from that point onward.
In other words, how we respond to those feelings of culture shock is one of the most important factors in whether or not we are able to break free from our own cultural conditioning. If we are able to embrace the pain and live with it, then we have taken a large step towards cultural adaptation. If not, then the only result will be that we will start rejecting our host culture.
Step #2: Adapting to the new cultural environment
When we are talking about adapting to a new cultural environment, we are talking about the process of internalizing its values, beliefs, assumptions and behavioral patterns to the point that we ourselves are capable of using them.
It is important here to recognize the difference between simple integration and real adaptation. Integration means that we are able to ‘copy’ the behavior of the locals to the point that we are able to operate in the new cultural environment without constantly upsetting the local people. Adaptation means that we are not only able to use the same behavioral patterns like the local people, but that we also understand the belief systems which are underlying these behaviors.
Integration is a relatively easy thing to do. It only requires us to make slight adjustments to our behavior to the point that we are not conducting one cultural faux pas after the other.
Adaptation, however, is a process that takes years. It requires us to constantly be in a state of trial and error, whereby we are making small adjustments in our behavior in order to be able to act more and more similar to a person from the culture we are trying to understand.
But even harder than being able to use the same behavioral patterns like locals is to develop an understanding of the beliefs which are underlying these behaviors.
A culture is a system of thousands of different values, beliefs and assumptions, all of which are affecting each other. Even if we start to understand one particular belief, then this still doesn’t mean that we understand how this belief fits into the wider picture of the culture as a whole.
True cultural adaptation means years and years of trial and error as well as constant reflection upon which beliefs are underlying certain behavioral patterns and how they fit into the whole picture of the cultural system.
Step #3: Integrating learned beliefs into your own sense of self
Having the capacity to use behaviors from another culture is one thing, but if they remain in conflict with our own sense of self, then we do not feel comfortable with using them.
At this stage, we are looking at the beliefs of the culture we are adapting to and reflecting about how we can integrate them into our own belief system. This can be an incredibly difficult task in itself, as beliefs from different cultures may be seemingly opposed to one another.
For example: how do you want to integrate German efficiency, planning and punctuality with African spontaneity, in-the-moment thinking, and flexibility?
Questions like these take very deep and conscious reflection.
This is also the point at which we need to make an active choice about which behaviors, beliefs and ideas from the new culture we want to make part of who we are. After all, it is very possible that we are completely internalize a belief, reflect for it for a long time, and in the end decide that this is simply not for us. And that is totally fine as well.
However, it is important to recognize that at this point we are never talking about a rejection of a culture of a whole. Rather, we are rejecting individual beliefs which simply do not seem to be in congruence with our own worldview. At the same time, we may also decide to rid ourselves of certain beliefs from our own culture which we have found to be unsuitable for our own sense of self.
Step #4: Cultural Innovation
Here we are coming back to the thought from the beginning. People never have ‘original’ thoughts out of nowhere. They rather combine two existing thoughts into something new.
The same principle holds true in the case of an individual’s process of becoming intercultural. She takes elements from both cultures that she has internalized, creates synergy between them and ultimately comes up with a third way of thinking that is completely her own.
As a result, I believe that people who reach the stage of cultural innovation are, in fact, coming closer to reaching their ‘true self’. After all, they themselves have reflected upon two or more cultures, and then made a conscious decision about which values and beliefs they want to keep for themselves.
Plus, they have found ways to integrate the two different belief systems to the point that they have created a third way which is completely their own making, as opposed to being a result of pure cultural conditioning.
Let’s take the German and the Indonesian perception of what makes for a good company as an example. The German perception of a good company is that of a well-oiled machine. All the elements of the company need to function efficiently and effectively in order to achieve the best possible results in terms of making profit. As a result, there is a high focus on making definite and clear plans and delivering projects on time.
From the Indonesian perspective, companies work more like a patriarchal family. There is one benevolent, wise leader who is taking care of the needs of the staff members. Staff members treat themselves like extended family, supporting each other even in non-business related issues and placing a high priority on maintaining harmony among themselves.
To me, both of these ways have their own unique advantages. German companies certainly function much more efficiently and are probably better at delivering financial goals. Indonesian companies, however, are better at creating a convenient environment to work in and providing employees with a comfortable life situation and support.
Indonesian companies are doing this by having longer working hours, but by allowing their employees to have a significant amount of flexibility during the day in terms of focusing their attention on work-unrelated issues. For instance, a meeting might take significantly longer than planned, because employees are simply enjoying themselves, having fun and laughing together.
These two things might seem diametrically opposed to one another on first view, but they don’t have to be.
For example: what if we were to plan for leisure time and relaxation during working hours by setting aside blocks of time during which employees have freedom to choose how they want to spend their time at work?
Or, by giving employees a certain number of hours every week that they can spend in any way they wish? For example, every week they have about 10 hours during which they can simply be spontaneous and decide to spend their time in any way they want.
These are only very simplified examples. But it is certainly possible to find synergy between all aspects of different cultures, regardless of how different they may seem to be on first view.
So, what are the next steps?
Growing beyond the constraints of your cultural conditioning is a difficult and long process. Even if we have completely internalized two different cultures to the point that we become ‘bi-cultural’ we still haven’t necessarily grown beyond either of these two perspectives.
The only time when we really can say that we have been able to grow beyond these cultural frameworks is when we have been able to combine them in our own way and create our own unique perspective on the world as a result of the process.
Now, I recommend that it is time to make an honest assessment of your own state in this process. What steps can you take to come closer to the stage of cultural innovation? How well have you been doing at previous stages? How effective have you been at learning and internalizing perspectives of looking at the world other than your own?
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