Intercultural Training: It’s Not The Bow…

If you’ve ever been abroad, even just for a vacation, you probably know that feeling.

You are somewhere else, and it’s all quite fascinating: new sights and sounds, people who are different – and yet it’s all the same, too. The sun still rises in the East, everybody still seeks to make a living, find some happiness… but something is bothering you, anyways.

Long before I ever studied cultural anthropology, Japan was the rising superstar on the world stage, and books trying to make Japan understandable to people from other cultures were aplenty. How to correctly greet Japanese with a bow, how to hand over your business card, but also how Japanese (business) culture was simply all different and would never be understood by any outsider – those were the kinds of things talked about ad infinitum. (It was not only talked about in business culture-books either. With Michael Crichton’s “Rising Sun,” for example, the theme even made it into novels and film adaptations…)

Of course, the issue was rather strange even back then, and it certainly still is: Even given how much more interaction and intermingling of people from different cultural backgrounds we have by now, most of us still live with very limited personal contact with such “others.” Those who do still get into intercultural training, at the very least of the “read this”-variety… and the real problems still present themselves not in how to give and accept business cards, but in much more hidden, maybe even subconscious, ways.

First step toward CQ: Self-Awareness | “How pathetically scanty my self knowledge is compared with, say, my knowledge of my room.”–Kafka

… or so “Leading with Cultural Intelligence” ‘s David Livermore had posted on his Facebook page. Our self-knowledge is usually patchy at best, maybe even necessarily so (given how much more is happening subconsciously rather than consciously), though.

And thus, little things are usually the most problematic ones in intercultural interaction. The speck of dust in one’s own eye…

Intellectually, you may feel that you got it, you know quite enough to deal successfully. Having arrived to a new cultural setting, you may still feel certain enough that you can cope – and I’m not just talking about the initial “honeymoon phase” so fondly described in talks about the supposed phases of culture shock. You know that there’s a problem of different languages, you know to bow and not to hug and kiss (or however it is where you are)… What makes you feel uncomfortable, not at home, are other things, though.

A new foreign teacher at my (by now, former) employer in China, Xiangtan University, had the perfect example: She told me of a Chinese acquaintance of hers, married to an American, who was going crazy – because of the carpet in her home. Having grown up in China, she was so used to tile or wood floors, she felt that the carpet flooring just had to be dirty, and couldn’t even be swept clean properly.

In contrast to weather, traffic, food – cases in which you can tell yourself that it’s just a different place and culture, and where differences are quite apparent – those small things like communication styles and other behavioral patterns (experienced in practice, not just intellectually considered) … and even carpets … aren’t usually noticed, don’t get quite conscious, and then may get to you.

Intercultural training that is to prepare for such “small things” is not the kind usually done. What one needs to learn is not so much how to bow and present a business card, but how to be a self-observer who can catch him-/herself when something is bothering them, before it’s too late to adapt to it. And still, the discomfort caused, even when good at accepting other things, will be a challenge…



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