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What cross-cultural glasses do you have?

by Agnieszka Laherto

What kind of cultural glasses were you given as a child?

Every single one of us has them but not everyone is aware of them.

I was given beautiful glasses with lovely frames with a label: Made in Poland. It was a gift from my closest ones: family and friends but also others who weren’t that welcome in my life. Nevertheless, my glasses were just perfect for the culture I grew up in. I could see clearly; the sharpness of vision was spot on; not to mention the design. They helped me decide how to behave using my culture’s rules and patterns as well as how to understand the world around me through Polish patterns of belief.

Everything changed when I had my first opportunities to meet people from different cultures. I realised that my tailor-made, beautiful glasses tended to fail me; from time to time my vision was blurred, therefore my reactions to what I saw were misplaced. With time and practice I learnt that if we are exposed to cross-cultural situations, the glasses we were given for our own culture won’t be enough.

After some years, I ended up marrying a Finnish man, moving to Finland and raising two children together as well as having friends and working with people from different countries. For those changes I needed to adjust my cultural glasses. As a result, my Polish ones are now nicely framed by Finnish design and have some lovely details from different cultures I have had the pleasure to explore. The process of change hasn’t been easy and has demanded a lot of effort.

When I moved to Finland I really struggled at the beginning. Everything seemed so different to what I was used to. I was in denial about some aspects of Finnish culture mainly because I didn’t understand where they were coming from and what they meant.

The perfect example is Finnish silence. This even happens when the table is full of people. I found it awkward at the beginning and, every time it happened, I did my best to cover it up with my excessive talkativeness. The end result felt as awkward as it had felt at the beginning. Finnish people were uncomfortable and I was just tired of the situation I was in.

With time I realised that the only person who feels uncomfortable being silent with others is me. Finns actually like it. For them it is giving space for others to think. Me, trying to break it, felt like disturbing the natural balance of the group conversation. After many years, I now feel very comfortable being silent with others. As a coach, I like using silent moments in the session not to disturb the thinking process of the coachee.

Right now, my cultural glasses have a mystical shade of silence in their design, which I am very proud of. All my experience with cross-culture has brought me to the conclusion that once you are exposed to foreign cultures you have two options. You either stay passive or you change your glasses.

If you decide to keep your old glasses, you will need to accept there will be continuous problems with your vision. You will have awkward reactions to what you don’t see clearly. You will eventually end up not enjoying your life to its fullest as you’ll probably end up judging what you don’t understand using your first culture’s rules and patterns of belief.

Culture is very complex; it’s not only all what you can see on the surface like: different language, behaviour, dress code, physical appearance or gestures. Culture goes much deeper. It’s something abstract, learnt and shared between the culture members as rules and standards for generating behaviour and understanding experience. Therefore, there will be other kinds of things creating cultural misunderstandings like different concepts of personal space, time, privacy, individuality, community etc. By making a decision to stay passive, you might end up feeling very confused, misunderstood and lost.

By choosing the second option you are ready for some changes. This doesn’t mean that you replace the old glasses with  brand new ones. You need to continuously reshape those you were given as a child. They might become bigger, have a different shape or thickness, maybe your frames need new design, new ornamenting or maybe it’s just about adding some different colour lenses. One thing is certain here, for those changes you need to stay open minded, curious and flexible.

You might ask yourself a question: so how do I know what glasses are best for me?

Well, the size and shape of the change will be defined by your feelings.

First of all, you need to make some effort to understand the foreign culture. Take some time to observe what’s happening around you. Try to find out what stands behind behaviours and expressions you are not sure of. Stick to people who represent the foreign culture. If you approach them with curiosity and the eagerness to learn you will have more chances to find something new to you, which feels positive.

Secondly, you do not need to adopt everything from the foreign culture. There will be some aspects of it that you don’t feel you can or want to take as yours and that’s ok. The most important thing here is to stay open-minded, try to understand them without judgement. With time you’ll figure out what feels right for you. With time your cultural glasses will  absorb the new colours, patterns, accessories and shapes of the new cultures.

The cultural glasses concept is equally applicable to  private life and the  workplace. Cross-cultural work experiences might feel stressful and confusing, especially if you have to live abroad. But you need to remember that the degree of your success depends on the extent of your open-mindedness to differences and your curiosity to explore. At first it might feel uncomfortable and challenging but with time and continuous effort you not only acquire a larger comfort zone but also some new experiences and knowledge. As a result you’ll grow as a person.

There are a lot of theories, which are great frameworks for cross-cultural work and can help you to work more effectively with people from different cultures such as:

  • Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory,
  • Trompenaars’ Cultural Dimensions Model, also known as The 7 Dimensions of Culture,
  • Philippe Rosinski’s Cultural Orientations Framework.

If you feel they might be useful for you, don’t hesitate to check them out. They will clarify the essence of an organization’s culture such as: what’s their approach to innovation and risk-taking, what is their attention to detail, what their orientation to outcome, people and team looks like, as well as how aggressive or how stable the organisation’s culture is.

You’ll gain clarity, they’ll navigate you through some difficulties you’ll experience on your way.

If you choose a path of continuously reshaping your cultural glasses, you make a purposeful choice of not becoming a victim of your own culture. It is of course a rocky but exciting road, littered with great opportunities and fascinating explorations. While going down this road you might find it useful to remind yourself that your open mind and respect are keys to your success. Be genuinely curious and stay away from judging. Only then will you be able to explore and understand the foreign culture in order to embellish your glasses.

After all, who doesn’t like  some different and unique frames?

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