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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CEOs Among Us

BigFishSmallPond

As I approached my seat on the airplane back to the U.S. a few weeks ago I was mildly disappointed to note a man in the seat next to mine.  I was hoping for a stretched out conversation-free flight but because of him I got the exact opposite. What I didn’t expect was that by the end of it all I would have a hard time saying goodbye.

I looked him over. Dark skin, pressed shirt, fingernails caked with dirt. He sat a bit off centered with his hands clenched over the bag on his lap. I removed the plastic from my blanket; he did the same. I opened my book; he reached for a magazine. I pushed on my T.V. screen; he pushed on his. Despite his interest in the T.V. screen he said, “No,” to headsets and then it dawned on me – this young, but hard faced, wrinkle skinned man had never been on a plane before.

I reached back, requested a headset and handed it to him and we resumed our game of Simon Says. I put on my headset; he did the same. I stuck the plastic wrap from my blanket in the seat pocket; he did the same. I put back my seat; he tried to do the same, but had no idea how. For the next half hour we communicated through nods and gestures and the occasional words.

He sat with his headset on just looking around and I showed him the end of cord. He jumped when I plugged it in. Once the volume was lowered he looked around as if he could see things floating in the air in front of him. He pointed to the screen and raised his eyebrows and I taught him how to use his first touch screen.

He inevitably pushed the icons to hard, too long and not quite on the mark and I couldn’t help thinking that this could be a metaphor for what was in store for him in America. The person in front of him looked back irritated a few times. After some music, he switched to movies and his first choice was Batman. The Batmobile and the Joker appeared on his screen  – welcome to America.

I shrugged it off and went back to my iPad until he wanted help with his immigration forms and that is where I learned his story.

“Address in the US?,” I asked

“Colorado.”

“Street?”

“Colorado.”

He looked at me sideways. I explained that Colorado was a state and that there were more specifics directions to where he would be going. He still didn’t know, so he handed over his passport with all of the paperwork some agency had probably given him and some of which was stapled directly into his passport.

Still no address, but there was letterhead from the Western Range Association stating that he was going to a ranch out in Colorado. I looked over the paper work in Spanish and his story became clearer.

He was being hired as a Shepard and he should expect to work the majority of his time alone with responsibility of upward of 1000 sheep. He had to have at least 1 year experience in this job and should expect to work long hours. Being able to ride a horse was a requirement. If his calloused hands were any indication, none should have been a problem at the tune of about $750 a month in pay.

During the rest of the flight he told me more. He was a father of 9 and had left his wife and family alone in an area that sounded quite remote. She wouldn’t have any relatives near by, but some of the children were old enough to help out. He was going to America to make more money and send it back to them in the hopes of a better future. In reality, he was the chief of his tribe, the CEO of his family, if you will.

In teaching him all of these new things, it was I who was changed during that flight. I learned what it was to be new again and how much fear is involved in going to a new place for the first time. I learned that he didn’t know what turbulence was or if it meant we were going to live or die. I also learned that as we approached the airport that he had grown comfortable enough to ask if I would make sure he got to his next gate. I learned that while he was intrigued by the movie icon image for Brokeback Mountain, he wasn’t all together comfortable with the topic. Ironically as I showed him all of this new technology it was he who taught me.

So why am I telling this story? Aside from the wonder of seeing the world through such new and unfamiliar eyes, Invisible Culture is about suspending judgment to seek out the reasons behind things that may not be immediately apparent. Our world-view is anchored in our experiences, so when we come into contact with people who are different from ourselves there can be a tendency to evaluate people from our own perspective. While our judgments and instincts are important to keep us safe in our environments, they can also cause us to jump to conclusions that are completely inaccurate and even at times prejudice.

I wondered what people in the land of manicures and pedicures would think of his hands. I wondered what responses he would get from people who think foreigners should speak “American.” I wondered if people would call him an alien if he wasn’t here illegally and I wondered if his employer would recognize that he was the CEO of his life in Peru. More immediately, I wondered how on earth he was going to afford lunch in JFK airport, let alone Dulles and Denver, which were still after that.

In the end, I waited for him and his friend at immigration, but an official came along. She said, “I’ll take it from here,” and so I reluctantly walked away as both he and I looked over our shoulders at one another as the distance between us grew with each step. After saying something to them she left them standing there alone and I wondered if she had any idea of how shocking baggage claim at JFK must have been to this Shepard of sheep, father of nine and CEO of his previous rural existence. We waved goodbye, but I suspected neither of us did so without reservations.

A couple of weeks later I contacted the ranch where he was working. I was delighted to receive a note back that all was well, but his trip was not that easy after that. A plane was missed (unsure of the reason) and his baggage never arrived so he was without any of his personal belongings and relying on the kindness of other workers to lend him some of their things. Once a chief, now a beggar.

So now what would you think of a person with dirty finger nails? How about the person that sits behind you on a plane and pushes on the back of your chair? Or how about a grown man who can’t speak English and is counting pennies to pay his lunch? Is he an alien or a hero to ten people who await his arrival home? We may never find out how his story ends, but we certainly can be a better part of someone else’s beginning.

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