Meet the Crew: Prachi Mehrotra

 The Invisible Culture of an Indian American

india america flag

I would like to introduce Prachi Mehrotra who works here at Invisible Culture. Since she was raised by Indian parents here in the United States, she walks the line between many worlds – traditional India, the United States, tech culture and generational culture (including a boss who remembers when cassettes were all the rage). I am delighted that she has been generous enough to share her experiences here as a guest blogger, so I look forward to hosting her stories from time to time. Hopefully by hearing about what it is like to straddle two (if not more) cultural worlds, we can all gain insights into this classic U.S. American experience that isn’t necessarily shared by all. Thank you Prachi…

Hi, my name is Prachi Mehrotra and I am currently a sophomore at studying at New York University. Over the past few months, I have been working for Invisible Culture under the training and guidance of Katherine. Through my experiences thus far with Invisible Culture, I have learned a lot about the differences, as well as the intersections, among cultures across the world. As a first generation Indian American, I have learned a lot about the importance of accepting different cultures and understanding how they may differ from my own.

My mother tells me a story that when I was younger and entering pre-school I didn’t know the word for water in English, only Hindi. Before that, my family primarily spoke Hindi at home. Though I knew English, I didn’t go to it as my first language. When I got to school, where no one spoke Hindi, I kept asking for “pani,” and the teachers couldn’t figure out what I was asking for. They finally figured it out with the help of my mom, but it definitely caused some problems at first.

At three years old, I didn’t understand that language could be a barrier between cultures. Though in the business world and beyond, we look to translations to bypass this problem, language is a very obvious and important part of any culture that sometimes we do not consider enough.

This is just one example of many of how invisible culture was present in my life. Growing up as in Indian in America has taught me a lot about these two distinct cultures, where they overlap, and how together they define me. Through my posts, I will explore and uncover more about my experiences and understanding of how these two cultures are different and how they work together.

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Global Leadership Insights

The Invisible Culture of Parenting

team vs individual

A French mother and a U.S. American mother are sitting in the playground parallel to one another. They both send their children off to play and they both give their children love when they come back crying after taking a fall. This is where their paths and those of their children go in different directions.

The French woman gives her child a kiss and some comfort and then scolds the child saying, “I told you to be careful. Now stay close to me and don’t get hurt.” The American mother gives a kiss and some comfort and then says, “Go on. Have fun. You can do it.”

This story can be found in the work of the French Psychoanalyst Pascal Baudry who discusses fundamental differences in French and U.S. American cultures from a psychoanalytic perspective. He says this example reveals a lot about how we develop our values. The French mother encourages group membership and closeness by resolving the problem with the solution of staying closer and not taking risks. The U.S. American mother encourages individuality with the resolution of going back out there and trying again.

Having grown up in the U.S. I often heard, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The U.S. American child is rewarded for taking risks, learning through mistakes and gaining independence at an early age. The French child is rewarded for being cautious, avoiding mistakes and staying close to the group.

Such values carry over into the workplace where I have heard more than one French person complain about U.S. American’s tendency to act too quickly. “If only they would take the time to do it right the first time, we wouldn’t have to spend all of this time correcting their mistakes.” The U.S. American sees those mistakes as natural parts of the process that encourage innovation, creative thinking and responsive problem solving. Meanwhile, the U.S. American complains that when working with their French colleagues, there is too much time spent talking and not enough time acting.

In the end they both get to the same place at the same time, they just do it differently. So who is right and who is wrong? Global Leaders recognize and embrace such differences as natural parts of a person’s upbringing and how we learn culture. They suspend judgment in order to recognize, adapt and leverage the similarities and differences into strengths not weaknesses. Consider a global team that has planners and risk takers and imagine the possibilities.

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The Invisible Culture of Privacy

The Invisible Culture of Privacy

private-door

Recently a woman from Singapore moved to the U.S. to work at a Fortune 500 company and was invited to her boss’ house for dinner. They were having a lovely time until the boss did something that made this woman totally uncomfortable. She gave her guests their drinks and then offered them a house tour. The Singaporean woman wasn’t used to this, but thought, “OK, why not.” It wasn’t until the boss was showing everyone the layout of the upstairs that the new arrival felt that things had gone too far. “She is my boss, why is she showing me where she sleeps?! It was totally weird.”

The American house tour has shocked endless newcomers to our shores over the years. I have heard similar comments from people from a variety of other cultures including Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and France. “Why do they show me where they carry on their private lives?” Or, “Why are they showing me the bathroom!”

In the U.S. people may expect to be given a tour and many U.S. Americans are happy to oblige since they take pride in their homes and feel it extends the relationship further. A house tour is an invitation to get to know someone better, a way to show people something beyond the sterility of work and ultimately a way to connect a little bit more deeply. Not all U.S. Americans give the house tour, but plenty do and some guests may even expect it.

The flip side is when someone keeps houseguests in the living room or dining area their U.S. counterparts may feel like the host isn’t being welcoming. A Dutch national once responded to that by saying, “Not welcoming! I’ve invited them into my home. How much more welcoming could I be when really in the end business meals should be kept to restaurants and public spaces.”

The notion of privacy affects many aspects of how we relate to one another from what parts of our lives we share to how we make new friends. It can affect the extent to which we discuss certain things with people with whom we work to how much we think our parents should know or be involved with our personal lives. This is particularly tricky for a newcomer since establishing new relationships and creating a community is typically on the top of the list of personal objectives, but how to go about that isn’t always clear.

I remember meeting a woman from Norway once who said she thought it was bizarre that U.S. Americans strike up conversations with complete strangers. Despite being taught at a young age to not speak to strangers, I recalled the time I returned to New York from Shanghai and someone struck up a conversation with me while waiting on line at a deli. I can’t remember what she said, but I remember thinking it was odd that she was talking to me.

My original self, before having moved abroad, wouldn’t have thought twice about someone making a small commentary about something we were both experiencing. In my U.S. culture, physical proximity is enough for someone to strike up conversation, but that in some cultures, like Norway, formal introductions, common purpose or shared membership to a group are minimum requirements for people to not think that you are completely crazy for talking to them.

The notion of how, when, and with whom it is appropriate to strike up a conversation is another layer of the Invisible Culture of Privacy that only becomes apparent to people when that moment of surprise, discomfort or bewilderment arises. One woman said she thought an American man was being a pervert, by the mere fact that he was talking her, “for no reason.” I remember another woman commenting at how strange she thought it was that a U.S. American neighbor could show up unannounced at her doorstep with an Apple Pie.

This is when understanding Invisible Culture comes in handy. Digging beyond visible surface behaviors can reveal when and how to approach people in a new culture, how much is appropriate to share or what to expect from your relationships. More importantly it provides tools for accurately evaluating tings that people do instead of jumping to conclusions about why they do it.

The world renown intercultural researcher Fons Trompenaars conducts research that identifies the extent to which it is culturally appropriate for there to be overlap between public and private life. He refers to these cultures as either Specific or Diffuse. Keeping in mind no one culture is completely one or the other, but he has revealed tendencies and preferences that run along national cultural lines.

In a Specific culture there is less overlap between public and private life. Work relationships are kept at work and personal relationships are maintained separately. Hedges grow high between neighbors and families tend to be less probing or actively involved in the life decisions of their young adult members.

In a Diffuse culture, all bets are off. Parents and aunts and uncles all tend to feel that a young adult’s activities are fair fodder for family discussion, neighbors can knock on your door to welcome you to the neighborhood and work relationships may involved more intimate conversations about personal activities over the weekend,  knowledge about your family make-up or your ideas about non-work related issues.

Whether or not someone is comfortable showing people their homes or talking about your weekend has less to do with whether or not they are willing to deepen a relationship and more to do with what cultural norms are adopted from a very young age. So the next time you are crossing cultures and someone shows you their toilet or tells you they are nervous about meeting their in-laws they may not be trying to be inappropriate, but instead just acting in a way that is normal from where they come.

Nonetheless, this American still believes bedrooms and toilets are off limits to employees!

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iC University

graduation

 

I’ll never forget the first time Invisible Culture was made visible to me. I was 11 years old at a water park in Florida, when a girl standing in line behind me asked,

“You wanna be my friend?” She had a deep southern drawl, which was unfamiliar to my New York ears.

I responded, “Sure, but you have such a strong accent.”

To which she replied, “I don’t have an accent, you have an accent!” I thought to myself, “I don’t have an aix ceent.” Wait a minute here…

In a blink I had my first cross-cultural “aha” moment: To her my way of speaking was strange. As I started to process this I struggled with the concept that she thought that her accent was normal.

And then it dawned on me: I am not the center of the universe. I stood there with my mouth half opened. The way I see the world isn’t the only way to see the world? My truth isn’t the only truth. I looked at her and felt a complete mix of emotions.   Shock. Horror. Pause. Wait, really? I didn’t know if I was crushed or giddy. The moment passed and we played all day, but the experience was not easily forgotten.

The next day on the long drive back to New York I thought about that interaction a lot. I felt betrayed and enlightened at the same time. I felt as if a door had been opened to a world that didn’t have a physical location. It was a door that led to multiple perspectives and open minds. It was a moment of awakening for me that has lasted a lifetime – the first of many and hopefully not my last.

So why do I tell this story? Because it is the beginning of the school year in the northern hemisphere and as we prepare to get back to school schedules I can’t help but reflect back on iCs blog and the comments I have received back from so many of you. Human-interest stories like the one about the Taxi driver or the Peruvian “CEO” seem to be popular, but many also ask about what it is exactly that I do and I am often at a loss to explain it in words.

In fact, words are ill-suited for the task of explaining how Invisible Culture impact our daily lives or what Invisible Culture actually is. Nonetheless, I will endeavor to write blogs from time to time that are a good starting point for explaining the unexplainable. Words (visible culture) are insufficient to have the impact that my interaction had, that said, they are a starting point.

One of the cornerstones of my industry of Intercultural Communications Training is that in order for true, accurate and ethical cultural learning to occur, it has to be experiential. You can’t teach culture. The process of me going through the experience of interacting with someone different is what opened my eyes, not someone telling me we are all different, not me saying I respect differences, not a grown up telling me to open my eyes. We all have bias by nature. It is what keeps us safe in our worlds, but it is also what gets us into trouble when we have to coexist with people who are not the same or do not have the same reference points that we do.

Everybody is the center of his or her own universe. Everybody will see the world based on his or her unique experiences. Everybody has been taught or has learned something that they believe to be good or bad. Everybody, to a certain extent, believes that their world view is correct and everybody, regardless of whether they are conscious of it or not, has something at stake when that idea is challenged. Hence, the need for a more experiential approach and my disclaimer: when I write about the basics of iC in my little iC University it will not be an end all be all, so much as, hopefully, a starting point for discussion.

Children are excused from an ethnocentric approach to seeing the world, especially those that aren’t exposed to too many people outside of their primary communities, but adults have less of an excuse. The world is changing. Newcomers are an inevitability. Every new person, whether from another country, town, age, educational, career or financial background, represents a culture unto themselves and as my favorite quote from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel goes, “Culture is like a wave. Resist it and it will knock you down. Dive straight in and you will come out the other side.”

I hope you continue to join me as we dive deeper into Invisible Culture.

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Model Leader – Peru

south-americanThe lion’s share of the work I do is for Fortune 500 companies, but every now and then I get asked culture related questions having to do with the issues that smaller businesses face. In the United States many small businesses employ people from Central and South America and American bosses find themselves unfamiliar with the cultures of their southern neighbors. The number one mistake someone can make when working with native Spanish speakers is to assume that they are all culturally the same, so a good starting point is to gather stories from people in the know.

On a recent trip to Peru I met with Miguel Vegas Van Oordt who manages 30 people for one of the Buenabrigo Hotels & Spas’ boutique hotels that just won the Trip Advisor 2013 Traveller’s Choice Award. His hotel has a reputation for exceptional customer service, so I asked him about the secret to his success:

         “First and foremost I tell everyone that this is a family. When I took the job I went to every employee’s house and sat with their family to get to know what their lives were like. I still go and visit their houses when there is a birth or something important because I feel that it is very important to our work that I feel connected to them outside of the hotel.”

Mr. Vegas Van Oordt’s comment illustrates the findings of best-selling author and researcher Dr. Fons Trompenaars, a Dutch expert in the field of intercultural communications who was voted as one of the top 20 HR Most Influential International Thinkers in 2011 by HR magazine. Trompenaars determined that there are four types of corporate culture preferences along national boundaries. It is no coincidence that one of those work style types is called the Family Style, whereby the definition of a good leader would share the same characteristics as a good father.

           “I try to be there for my staff when they need me. I also tell them that before they walk in the door in the morning that they should drink a bottle of oil. The idea is that the collaborator must not feel that when a guest is angry for anything and probably shouts or shows a bad attitude, even though it is not the resort’s fault, they should not make it personal and must always show a good attitude and smile.”

His approach seems to work. When a guest, or huesped, needs something there is always someone jumping to help. There is even a delightful camaraderie between returning guests and staff that reflects an even more extended family.

           “I also tell them that if the hotel reaches it’s sales goals at the end of each month, a name will be selected by lottery and that person will win a prize like an appliance or something for their home.” The notion of family extends beyond just the management, employees and guests. By creating a motivation system that also rewards people’s families at home, Mr. Van Oordt is leveraging his knowledge of culture to create business success.

In many of the cultures where the work style is Family oriented, relationships and group membership are highly valued over the task. In the end, it is relationships that get the task done, but an American boss may not start from that assumption. Compared to their Southern neighbors, Americans are typically more driven by goals, clearly defined tasks and schedules. In the U.S. the relationship grows from the task. It is the exact opposite in 80% of the world where the task gets done through relationships. The nature of the superior/subordinate relationship is therefore completely different.

Mr. Van Oortd’s style may seem very flexible to some Americans, but on the contrary, he is very fastidious about adhering to rules. One employer of a small business with South American employees once asked about how to handle someone with a bad attitude towards management that spilled over into the attitude of her sister who also worked there. “Sometimes I have to fire people.” He replied. “I remember when I arrived, there were some people who had to go. It was a terrible day, but I had to do it to establish an understanding that work is work, the rules must be followed and management needs to be respected.”

I asked him how he handles a commonly heard story about boundaries in a more intimate work environment: when an employee asks to borrow money. He confided, “I lend my staff money, but I make sure they pay it back. That keeps the others from asking because they know that eventually they are still going to have to pay for it. When it is an emergency that may be of a higher amount, I ask for the bill and pay the account directly. That leaves no questions and establishes an environment of respect and trust.”

The lessons provided by Mr. Van Oordt’s stories can be applied to both large and small companies. Regardless of size, people still want to be led, they still thrive when properly motivated and they still need to be compensated. How to tackle such HR issues varies across cultures, but one thing is for sure – there is someone doing it well and while finding someone as successful as Mr. Van Oordt may not be easy, it is worth the search to keep trying.

And who knows, through the practice of asking, you never know what relationships you may build.

A special thanks to Mr. Van Oordt for taking the time to share his expertise.

 

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Slow Down, You’ll Get There Faster

Slow-Down-

Twice this week people have asked me to address the cultural differences between small towns and big towns. People often think of culture in terms of national boundaries, but there are plenty of sub-cultural differences within the same country, such as: age, gender, education, region and even urban/rural. One of the most common sources of misunderstandings has to do with whether or not a person is more task or relationship orientated.

One small business owner was telling me the challenges of managing people that may not only be from a totally different country, but also live right around the corner. It is a lot harder for a boss to take a hard line on an employee that they may see at church, the supermarket or the Sunday concert on the green. Also, the nature of the job in small towns tends to be more intimate whereby people are working closely together and therefore tend to know more about each other. more >

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