Before You Learn a New Culture, Study Yourself First!

Today I learned something new. I mean, I learn something new every day. But today I learned something that really changed my perspective – and I love it! John Giardano wrote:

“The most important thing we need to learn about culture is not the culture we are going to but to understand the culture where we are coming from”

This is awesome advice. Why? Because there are so many types of cultures out there – be it national, personal, organizational, family – it is simply impossible to learn all of them. Obviously I am not saying that you shouldn’t learn something about other cultures. No, not all all. You definitely need to understand the culture of the new place you are visiting, but the great thing is that by understanding yourself first, it will be easier for you to learn something about the new culture you are visiting.

There is much to learn here. Get to know your family background. Speak to your grandparents, find out as much as you can about their lives and their parents’ live. Your family tree has much to tell you about who you are and why you value whatever it is that you value. Study the history of your country, learn as much as you can about the places you have worked at. Find out more about your religion, your ethnic group – of all the groups you belong to. Group memberships form a big part of our identity. Reflect on what you learned from each of the groups you belong to!


Why is this important? Because by learning about who you are, what your beliefs and values are, you will also find out what sets you apart from other other. You will become more consciously of the differences between you and other people. While it is not a good thing to focus on differences, it is a necessary first step to learn. Become aware of what makes and the others different!

Next, look at how these differences can be overcome. What is their comfort-zone compared to yours? Where do they overlap? On what values can we focus so that both of us are okay with the new form of behaviour?

Yes, that’s right: the new form of behaviour. Like Michael A. Podolinksi says in his book Managing, Motivating, Maximizing Teams in Asia “instead of stuggling to learn how everybody expects to be treated and how they do this, that and the other, we make our own culture of how we choose to be treated and to treat each other“.

Personally I think you should still learn the local culture, but I also agree that by having a discussion with your colleagues and agreeing on a certain set of behaviours, everybody will be more happy. In fact, you will be able to combine the strengths of each culture involved.

A great example here is a manager who transferred his participative leadership style from the US to India, where he then was perceived as a man without resolve. A weak manager. They lost respect in him. He wanted them to be creative, to voice their opinions, but they wanted an authoritative leader.

“Alright then”, he suggested. “Whenever there is an issue, come to me and I will make the decision. But I will not talk to you unless you come up with three suggestions first about how to solve the problem. It doesn’t matter whether or not I believe they are the right solutions. Just show me that you are creative enough to think for yourself!”  Clearly a win-win solution!

Last but not least I would like to thank Michael Podolinski his great book “Managing, Motivating and Maximizing Teams in Asia”. It clearly motivated and inspired me to write this article. I can only recommend reading it!

And as always I would like to encourage all of you to give your comments. Do you believe learning about yourself is the best way to learn about a new culture? Have you ever co-invented a new culture with your colleagues? If yes, did it work or not? If not, what went wrong?





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