Sometimes it just isn’t possible for us to figure out what is going wrong in our intercultural encounters. Certain cultural assumptions are just so much out of our own way of thinking, that no matter how much we think about it, we can’t figure out what is going on. Or worse, we don’t even realize that we did something wrong, or that something is going wrong.
In those situations, when we just aren’t able to figure out what in the world is happening, we need a ‘culture mentor’. A culture mentor is someone who is familiar with the culture you are dealing with. It would be perfect if she was, in fact, from the culture you are trying to undersatnd. And, in the best case scenario, she has a high level of intercultural competence as well. That’s because even if she understands her own culture, as long as she is not comptetent within other cultural contexts, she will be as blind to the situation as you are.
Under perfect circumstances, she is part of your work environment as well and able to witness your behaviour directly. That way, if she notices you acting inappropriately, she can immediately give you feedback on what you did wrong, and what you need to consider next time. You need to go beyond your comfort zone and accept that the fact that you will inevitably make mistakes when you deal with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, no matter how experienced you are.
Even the most experienced cross-cultural expert would never be able to understand every culture of the world. No. What makes him or her an expert in the field is that he or she is able to quickly learn about the new culture she finds herself in, analyse it, and that adapt her behaviour in an appropriate manner. But then again, here we are not talking about a matter of hours or days. It will still take her months to become truly adapt within the culture, because a true understanding of a different culture requires you to adapt a completely different value system.
Of course you can look up a list of the common values of a country, but that doesn’t mean that you have a real understanding of what these values mean to the people, and how they are manifesting themselves through daily interactions. And that’s exactly where your culture mentor comes in. She is part of the culture, she understands these values, and she is able to convey these values to you in a way that resonates with you. That is not an easy job. Not at all.