Yesterday I acted like a completely insensitive idiot. I live with an Australian couple, and some other international friends. One of them, a French guy, just recently moved to Australia and said to me that he already was worried about the money. And I replied to him: “yes, that’s what happens in Australia. They try to take money from you everywhere”. Unfortunately my Australian roommates heard that. Ouch. They were clearly upset, and they had all right to be. Now, this wasn’t even so much about cultural competence, it was just general insensitivity. I admit it.
He was eating at that time, and I had something else to discuss with him. So I let him eat first and went back to my room. When I came back, he was sitting with his girlfriend in the living room. And because I am a very conflict-avoidant person, I would’ve normally just kept silent and talked about that other issue. But this time I didn’t. I immediately apoligized and explained to him what I meant in neutral-, not emotionally laden terms. I said that for an international student, the costs in Australia are very high, and that from my perspective education should not be something to make profit from. And so we had a very factual discussion, in which we disagreed with each other, but which did not upset either of us. And so the problem was solved within a few minutes. When my feeling told me to just keep quiet about the issue, it was my sense of self-enhacement speaking.
Self-enhancement is the need to feel good about yourself
That’s why we love to be in our comfort zone. There is nothing that disturbs us, the world is peaceful, and we can be relaxed an happy. We completely avoid issues that make us feel uncomfortable. In this situation, what would have happened was that there would’ve been a sort-of silent tension. But we were able to avoid that, and everything is good. But the need to feel good about yourself has other implications as well. For instance, it also means that we avoid information that is inconsistent with what we value and belief.
And, it is clear what implications that has for someone interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds. These people naturally act in ways very different from yours, and if you follow your instincts, your need to be consistent with yourself, then you will automatically discard all of these. It is therefore very important that you learn how to control this need. You need to learn how to integrate those bits of information which make you feel uncomfortable within your own belief system. That means that when things go wrong, when some behaviour upsets you, or when you upset someone else, you need to reflect carefully on what happened. In other words: you need to learn how to be able to respond to negative feedback.
Self-growth is the need to constantly challenge yourself
That first of all sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? We learn new stuff, we challenge ourselves to grow. And yes, it is a very good thing. People with high cultural competence, have a very strong sense for growth. However, what’s difficult about this is that many people want to see the changes now, and that they want to reach their goals now. That often just isn’t possible. Being able behave in ways that reflect the new culture one is learning is a process that takes a long, long time. So we need to learn how to ‘delay gratification’ (being patient to wait till one’s goals are fulfilled). We also need to set clear learning goals: what exactly is it that you what to understand about the culture you are exposed to? It’s ways of greeting, it’s social order, it’s workplace customs? And, just like with any other goals we set, we need to be able to recover from setbacks, and have the motivation to keep on going. A culture just isn’t learned in one day.
Self-consistency is the need to have a certain stability in life
Well, unfortunately moving to another country, or just interacting with people from different cultures, is highly disruptive. It can change our worldview altogether. But, luckily for many people, that just doesn’t happen. All of us construct our memories in a way that it fits in together with the memories of our past. Like I said, we ignore the information that doesn’t suit us, or we shape it in a way that it works for us. For these people who do this in an extreme way, their worldview is the one truth, and evertyhing else is just wrong. I think I don’t need to explain why this is a problem for cross-cultural understanding.
Last but not least I would like to thank Christopher Earley, Soon Ang and Joo-Seng Tan for developing these needs in their book “CQ: Developing Culutral Competence at work“