Cultural learning is learning from experiences. By interacting with the environments we are in, we observe and imitate the behaviours of others, and we observe the consequences our actions have. When we have the impression that these consequences are positive, then we will continue showing this behaviour in the future. If not, then we will stop showing a similar behaviour.
Peter Sange, in his book “The Fifth Discipline”, argues that “we learn from experience but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions”. That is, because these consequences are not taking place immediately, and because there simply is no clearly observable cause-effect relationship between them.
For cross-cultural learning situations, it is very common that we miss the consequences of our own behaviour. There are two primary- and interrelated reasons for why this is the case.
1. Certain patterns of behaviour turn into subconscious habits
2. These habits of acting become so ingrained into us that they are below our level of awareness
3. We stop observing the consequences of these cultural habits because we take their validity for granted
Therefore, it becomes of crucial importance that we start bringing our own culturally ingrained habits of behaviour back to our conscious awareness. Whenever we come out of a cross-cultural encounter, we should therefore ask ourselves: “what consequences did my behaviour have on the other person?”.
If we can’t answer this question confidently, then we need to ask ourselves what the necessary steps are in order to confirm our assumptions.
Furthermore, it makes sense to either ask the other person how he or she actually perceived the behaviour during the conversation, or to ask him or her at a later point in time if you are really unsure about the conclusions you have reached. Often, open and honest questions like this can not only give you great insights into the different culture you are trying to understand, but it can also further the trust between you and your conversation partner.
How aware are you of the consequences of your actions?