Losing YourSelf in Cultural Intelligence

“You just don’t do things right.”

If you’ve been reading these pages, you should be aware that I’d argue there’s much more “there” here, wherever you are, than commonly said. Too many, ubiquitous, arguments try to get people to travel and argue that it will somehow, magically, make you a better person with more experiences and education. Well, it doesn’t work that way.

Still, for everyone who doesn’t just want to be stuck in one place, never knowing how much more there is out there, cultural intelligence is fast becoming an essential skill.
In fact, even as we stay put, we interact with people from different places, with different cultural and social backgrounds, whether directly or indirectly, ever more. And so, even if most people still end up having much more interaction with others from their own spheres (that’s just how life is) than with any sorts of others, it helps to have some awareness of the “other” and how to interact successfully with “it.” In business, but also for personal growth.

All too often, however, intercultural training still focuses on knowledge of such others and supposedly proper ways of communication and behavior, and misses the usual source of problems: frustration arising because the flexibility necessary to fit in overstretches one’s sense of self.

It’s only too easy to learn about “other” ways of doing things, even to learn to interpret situations and statements from a different vantage point.
It’s a very different issue, however, if you are a quiet person thrown into personal encounters where quiet welcomes and goodbyes are seen as cold and distant, and thus maybe even disrespectful.
Sat before a bowl of dog meat, no amount of theoretical knowledge is enough to weigh the pros and cons of trying it or outright refusing.
Being used to knowing what the plans are, and then getting back from a trip to one place and suddenly, bag still in hand, ending up at a KTV (karaoke parlor) can stretch your comfort zone to the breaking point.
(And yes, those are examples from just two recent days of mine here in China.)

What it all requires is not so much intercultural understanding as self-understanding. Or perhaps not even that, but rather the ability or flexibility to pretty much give up what you’ve come to think of as yourself, what your personality is like. To lose your self and go with the flow instead.

This is not meself :-p
This is not meself :-p

Incidentally, it’s been said that the way personality gets set in certain ways is a reason why adult learners have a harder time with foreign languages, at least where accents are concerned, than young learners. As an adult, you want to sound like yourself. Unless if you are drunk…

Now, in China, alcohol may often enough help to relax the grip the (view of one)self has on one’s behavior, but it is perhaps better to try and learn to lose oneself as much as necessary in other ways that are less dependent on substance abuse. Such flexibility of behavior, even of self-perception, isn’t usually what we’re being taught in and by all the calls to be ourselves, though… and of course, giving up on any and all of your self isn’t possible or advisable. Even if you did, you wouldn’t completely blend in, anyways.

That’s not the goal, either. Knowing when to shift and when to hold on, and not falling into the trap of holding on to one’s usual ways of doing things as it is making for too hard a time, that is the challenge and the necessity. The failure to do so isn’t just what can wreck intercultural relations, it even destroys the fun of many a travel experience, as every situation gets interpreted in the light of what one is used to and was expecting rather than what actually is.

Don’t get stuck like that; enjoy the ride. Even if it can be quite a rollercoaster.

2 Comments

  1. […] discussed before, adapting to a different culture and another social context can make it necessary to forget […]

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