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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Who Would You Hire?

tax

If you had to choose between a Pakistani taxi driver and a recent American Harvard graduate to run a new foundation, who would you choose?

The whole idea behind Invisible Culture is to heighten awareness of the things that may not be immediately apparent. I never cease to be amazed by the small miracles that surround us on a daily basis. Too often we can’t “see” them because of circumstance, schedules, or just simply being in our own world.

This morning while taking a taxi to JFK, that is exactly where I was – in my own world. I was reviewing notes for my upcoming job. When I finished, I asked my driver where he was from and was jolted out of my reverie to hear what followed.

more >

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Japanese Emoticons

Diving into Invisible Culture is as much about learning about a foreign land as it is about seeing the reflection of our own cultures in the differences of those lands. Take a recent article that was written about the use of smiley faces that we use on emails or Facebook. According to Masaki Yuki, a scientist at Hokkaido University, the way we make those faces tells us something about the differences between U.S. and Japanese culture.

japanese_emoticons

According to Yuki, Americans tend to put more emphasis on the mouth while Japanese focus on the eyes. He suggests that since Japanese tend to be more group oriented, maintaining harmony results in emotions being more controlled in public (iC). Nonetheless, no amount of control can mask ones true emotions which is why Japanese look to the eyes for other clues.

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The Meaning of Yes

What would you think about a person who told you they could get a job done by Friday, but when Friday arrived the job wasn’t done? In North America this is the greatest way to lose someone’s trust and suggest you are incompetent, but in some cultures it is actually a way of being polite.

yes-no-

Consider the Canadian engineer who is working virtually with his Indian colleagues. Generally speaking, Canadians working in multi-national corporations are used to being able to ask each other closed questions like, “Can you get this job done by Friday?” and getting direct responses of either “yes” or “no” from one another. If someone says no, they both plan accordingly and nobody thinks twice about it. more >

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