It’s such a cool experience, watching the aquatic parade.
The sharks glide by.
The sea anemones do their funky slow-mo dance.
Even the guy in the wet-suit fits right in — Okay, maybe not him.
But you know what I mean. The whole aquarium thing just, you know, works.
What do fish have to do with culture?
Culture is like the water in an aquarium. And we humans are the fish.
As we paddle along, culture keeps us afloat. It’s the shared values and beliefs we live by, the rituals and traditions that say “this is how we do things here”, the taboos that tell us what behaviors are out of bounds.
For people born and raised in the U.S., culture is things like:
- Just Do It © or “Been There, Done That” (values)
Always singing the “Star-spangled banner” before a ball game. (traditions)
It’s rude to ask someone how much money they make. (etiquette and taboos)
For someone from Japan, culture might be expressed this way:
- You always accept a business card with both hands and study it carefully.
When you’re a guest in someone’s home, it’s rude not to eat all the food your host offers.
Is either one of these cultures better than the other?
Nope. They’re just different ways of being in the world.
Are these differences ever cause for confusion?
That’s because, like the fish in an aquarium, we’re all immersed in our own culture and that can make it hard to see, let alone, understand how the world might look to other fish, er, people who are from another culture.
But, as long as you’re safe in your own cultural waters, life usually goes swimmingly.
Something Smells Fishy Around Here
But let’s say you have a change in life circumstances.
You decide to study abroad or you’re assigned to a global team at work.
Or maybe, like me, you fall in love with someone from another culture.
Now you’re in unfamiliar, maybe even murky, waters.
Out of the Water and Into the Fire
Getting dumped out of your cultural fish bowl, whether by force or by choice, is shocking, to say the least.
After all, you’ve got a whole new set of cultural behaviors and norms to sort out.
Which leads to lots of questions and maybe even some frustration.
- Why can’t I get a straight answer from my Korean colleague?
My Spanish girlfriend is never on time!
This meeting with our Brazilian clients is really dragging on. What’s with all the chit-chat?! I mean, let’s get to the sales pitch, already!
Ever felt this way? No worries, confusion, frustration and exhaustion are part of developing cultural awareness.
But, if you want to stay afloat — be happy in your new home overseas, get along with your colleagues or make your cross-cultural romance work — you’re going to have to learn some new strokes.
Three Tips for Staying Afloat in Cross-cultural Seas
- Resist the urge to succumb to stereotypes. Sure, it would be easier to just label the other culture as “lazy”, “crafty”, “just not like us” or any number of unflattering adjectives. But does that really make it easier to get along?
- Educate yourself about other cultures. Read books. Ask questions. That way, you can not only anticipate where misunderstandings might arise, you can build on cultural traits that you and your new friend, colleague or soul-mate might share.
- Remember to take off your own cultural goggles. Pretend you’re an anthropologist and try seeing your own culture as someone from another culture might. Need some ideas? Click on your nationality at How to Tell If You’re… and see how many apply to you.
Go back to the Culture 101 series.