My Perception Is My Reality

Is that THE reason for so many misunderstandings?

The Oxford Dictionary defines perception as “the way in which something is regarded, understood or interpreted.“ The word derives from the Latin word “percipere” meaning “understand”.  Hence, how we understand and interpret a situation is entirely up to our very own culture. Our perception is culturally determined and it influences the way we think and behave and judge...

“Culture is a pattern of learned, group related perceptions, including both verbal and nonverbal language, attitudes, belief systems and behaviours that is accepted and expected by an identity group.” (1*)

Most of us have the desire to be with people who are similar to us, who share the same ways of doing things and understand the same rules. Operating in such an environment seems like common sense.

But sometimes, a business trip or the gap-year abroad or just an exciting holiday in an exotic country, we leave our comfort zone. It can be a rather irritating experience, to say the least. We soon realise that the rules and interactions are now different. Our perception of “normal” is not “normal” anymore.

So how do we adapt best?

“Cultures are not fixed. They are changing and interconnected although change may be slow and irregular. Cultures are dynamic as they are created and recreated through shared interactions.” (2*)

If we want to succeed in being understood in a foreign culture and vice versa, to understand our counterparts, it is utterly essential to understand where they are coming from. What is their reality? What are their values, their attitudes, customs and rules? How are things done in their society?

In the end we will only grasp a fraction of it BUT a good general idea will already help enormously to have a more successful business meeting or working relationship. Or just the journey of our lifetime where we meet people we otherwise would have never met.

Other peoples’ perceptions, hence realities, are not necessarily wrong or inferior. They are “only” different to ours.

The point is, behaviours and communication practices inevitably vary as a result of different perceptions of the world. What our counterpart hears and understands is not necessarily what we say and mean. It is a communication challenge per se, not only across cultures.

Essentially, we are looking at the world through our own cultural glasses. This makes us evaluate all other cultures according to our standards, norms and beliefs. What we should be doing is replacing our glasses with different ones from time to time. This can only be done through knowledge and openness to adjust. Armed with new insights the world will be a very different and even a more exciting place.

An example. My partner once met American tourists in Cape Town who related that they had been saddened and upset on seeing “3 young black men with only a lion cloth, painted white and carrying a spear in the field.” They perceived this as “unzivilised” and could not understand that this was still happening in the new South Africa.

However, had they put on different glasses – the ones showing (South) African culture - they would have had a completely different view, hence story to tell. Most probably one of amasement and respect, as these were boys going through a traditional ritual that transforms them from boyhood to adulthood. (Initiation ceremony)

And no-one less than Albert Einstein professed “Reality is merely and illusion, albeit a very persistent one”. Still, I believe these glasses are worth a million. And they also feed our soul... 


(1*Singer, 1998, 2*Gudukunst, 1983)

Tags: behaviour, transition, perception

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