No question, we are living in unsettled times. It seems impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. Step out for a Starbucks, and things have changed by the time you return to your desk. The unpredictable is followed by insistent distraction. Who isn’t mesmerized by all the twitter feeds, blog posts, podcasts, and headlines? When I can’t tell code from content, I focus on changing cultural attitudes that have the power to change lives for the better.
As an expat career coach, I create smooth cultural transitions for people in global transition. Impassioned by a lifetime of travel and anthropology, I reveal insights about people who were raised very differently from you. This is a significant factor in how well we get things done, particularly at work. Culture is also a double edged sword. As a tool to problem solve and make sense of the world, it’s also responsible for culture clashes and the chief source of mutual frustration, from the living room to the boardroom. Yet we can create more harmony by developing awareness about our own attitudes, values, and behaviors. Transforming our higher selves changes our life and the lives of others, making with world a better place.
For example, what we believe to be “common sense” is actually cultural sense. Obtaining and understanding that awareness creates a pause. And in that pause, you may notice a shift occur making room for listening. This is the space where you’ll discover new ways of thinking, empowering you to change your attitude and your life profoundly because your world view – your cultural values, beliefs, and perceptions -- account for your behavior.
Today, in the globalized workplace, cultural awareness is no longer an experience. It’s an indispensable soft skill for successfully handling intercultural incidents and interactions. While you may not be able to acquire it through expatriate experience, it can be developed with the help of a cross-cultural coach because it’s a learned behavior. By making the foreign feel more familiar, you increase your value quotient and become more marketable.
It may sound contradictory, but by looking at ourselves and our national culture, we understand others because ae don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are. By examining your American mindset with powerful cultural lenses, you’ll discover how the invisible hand of culture drives your behavior in ways you never imagined. It reveals the hidden values, attitudes, and beliefs that make you, American. That your cultural mindset – or any other perspective isn’t better, it’s just different. And anyone who has lived abroad will tell you, the evident culture like food, music, or language – doesn’t cause of culture clashes. Rather, it’s the hidden dimensions such as body language, ideas about time, attitude towards authority, and decision-making that account for it.
The invisible dimensions most Americans don’t know about America are Equality – Competition – Rules – Directness – Speed – Self-Reliance, among others. By examining Equality carefully and how it can be perceived by others, we notice people from other cultures observe that Americans are informal and they don’t understand why we insist on treating everyone the same. Equality is so central to our core values, it’s in the first line of the Constitution that “all men are created equal.” By treating everyone the same, our casual behavior is perceived as a lack of respect.
Equality is also rejection of the British and European class system by our founding fathers. We prefer a “level playing field,” so everyone gets a fair chance. Not everyone will succeed, but at least the same set of rules allows everyone to start with an equal chance. Equality accounts for random seating at gatherings and when standing in line, people are served on a “first come, first served,” basis. Each person waits their turn, regardless of age or rank.
Equality also accounts for how Americans achieve social status, whereas in other cultures it’s ascribed by birth, title, or family heritage. Equality is a value we live by when we hear the sky’s the limit for anyone to achieve the American dream, even a “skinny kid with the big ears and funny name” who became the President of the United States. What we do makes us who we are and “everyone’s a winner”.
We believe power should be shared by everyone (in theory) and not concentrated into the hands of a few. In business, politics, and child rearing, we empower people to make their own decisions. Even children are encouraged to express their preferences and make their own decisions. They are encouraged to “play fair and share their toys” with everyone.
While we think equality is admirable, it’s the exception to the rule where class distinctions run in roughly 85% of the rest of the world. American informal ways of dressing, talking, and behaving can be perceived as rude by hierarchical cultures. Our empowered youth-oriented culture gives the impression we lack respect for elders and authority too. For example, some American kids call parents and other adults by their first name. Unthinkable in other countries.
Equality affects how we communicate with a preference for politically correct speech. While some say that such euphemistic talk disguises the nature of the truth. In the land of free speech, people from other countries are surprised that we avoid candid discourse amongst ourselves, and especially the double-speak of political discourse. This behavior has a censorial quality they perceive as misguided-fairness, rather than well-intentioned harmony. Intentional ambiguity or inversions of meaning makes the truth sound more palatable, calling layoffs, "downsizing,” "servicing the target" for bombing, “outsourcing” for employing people at low wages abroad.
I’m not sure we may ever be free of culture’s consequences, but when you change your cultural attitudes, you change your life. The ripple effect is a positive impact that can’t help but make the world a better place.
Lisa La Valle-Finan is an expat career coach who reveals how the invisible hand of culture drives our behavior in ways you never imagined at work. She welcomes all comments and can be reached at LLFinan@Live.com.