Myths of Cultural Adaptation

Lamentably, our global society meets with far too many over-confident world travellers. People often launch themselves headlong into the global arena expecting those they meet to cater to their every whim. They may be diligent, hard-working, successful individuals and yet are blind to social cues and cultural subtleties. They do not listen to advice or counsel from seasoned consultants and feel things “are just fine” while missing out on a potentially superior international experience. If you are open to the fact that you may be even a little deluded in your intercultural mindset, explore the following myths:

Myth # 1 – I can read up on the country on the plane in transit to the country. Even if cramming for exams worked for you in college, you have come to realise in the business world the value of careful preparation. Reducing any centuries-old culture to the “top ten taboos to avoid” or the etiquette of business card exchange tends to likewise limit your ability to succeed in your professional objectives. You may seal the temporary deal, but you cheapen the relationship. Expand your mind and appreciate the fact that the complexity of your own culture may be a key to appreciating the complexity of the culture you are entering.

Myth # 2 – One or even a handful of trips abroad have given me all the experience I need to blend seamlessly into any culture. As I was gently reminded recently by a colleague, there are very few “seamless” cultural interactions. There is a famous quote from Alexander Pope,

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again”.

Anyone who has lived in a country for more than two years will tell you that their first impressions were vastly sophomoric. Learning a language takes time - it is not done in "5 easy lessons for only 5 minutes a day." A few brief business trips to exotic locales, while perfect for whetting one’s appetite, are not enough to form any sort of fair assessment of an entire culture.

Myth # 3 – I don’t need to speak to anyone to form an opinion – I gather quite enough merely observing people. Need it be repeated that people are like books and should not be judged by their cover? I believe so. We cannot be reminded enough that everyone you meet is a world unto themselves. Even if I have met 1000 Mexicans, the next one I meet will be unique and rich in their contributions and insight. They deserve to not be treated as a carbon copy of their 1000 other compatriots with whom I have worked.

Myth # 4 - It is better to blend in and not stand out to avoid offending anyone. If we are to have any impact on the world, it is not simply as one more bland ingredient. Your value is in your individual identity. Once I truly recognise my own intrinsic value I can appreciate the value of an individual from a culture completely different from my own. Their uniqueness is their strength. Their culture is their contribution just like my culture is my contribution. Cultural cooperation can be achieved even if all parties bring their individual strengths to the table. It is the intention to get along that carries the day, not the intractable cautiousness of stubborn recalcitrance.

Myth # 5 – I’ll wait for them to approach me - if they’re really interested, they will reach out. I propose that kindness begins with me. Cultural bridges are built by making the first move. This does not mean the first move has to be an offensive or aggressive action. But it can be my attitude and open mind. Opening my mind to the possibility that I do not have a monopoly on cultural treasures leaves me open to the idea that I can learn from my international colleagues. I make the first move by being receptive to what they have to teach me and from this stance we can learn together in interdependence. (Author: Benjamin Smith, PhD)

Adapting to a new culture takes serious effort, thoughtful strategy, and, often, a great deal of courage. But managing this balancing act will pay great dividends for you and for the people you manage and lead. 

Tags: translation , travel, perception, cultural intelligence , culture shock

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