Baseline, benchmark, bottleneck: Why cultural self-awareness is crucial.

I just had a chat with a Dutch teacher to discuss the materials that I will present to a team of European teachers at a workshop for the Virtex4all project in Estonia in June 2010. The aim is to give them some ideas that they can pass on to their students about cultural differences. During the briefing conversation, she mentioned that it’s not so much about a list of do’s and don’ts but about awareness of cultural differences.  I agree but think it’s more than that. It’s about awareness of our own culture and identity and understanding that we use these (subjective) norms to evaluate a situation and decide what to do next


how often does someone look up the ‘why’ of their own way of doing things before they travel for business or pleasure?

Being aware of your culture is key to understanding the other 


Cultural self awareness sounds psychological, which may put some people off. This is unfortunate, because even basic business, sales, good management and governance is all about psychology. Social psychology deals with the behaviour of people in social situations. By default, management (be it in business, governmental, non-governmental sector) concerns dealing with people; i.e., social situations. It pays to know your psychology.

As much as we’d like to view ourselves as superior intelligent beings, we are only human and with that come certain behavioural and cognitive traits. For example, we learn how to do certain things (like eating with knife and fork) and take that with us on journeys. We may learn to eat different things in different ways, but, on average, we have a preference to which we stick. I once asked my Chinese students how they eat (with chopsticks) and what they eat (Chinese food). To the question ‘Do you eat European food?’, the answer was ‘yes, but with chopsticks’. It had not occurred to me that the tool is separate from the substance. It’s a nice example that indicates that our reality is seen through cultural lenses that are part of our identity, but with which we also evaluate someone else.


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Processing consequences

The last 10 days, for professional and personal reasons, have been about processing consequences and how this affects one’s identity. Coming from a country that prides itself for its tolerance yet independence, the cultural values that are about individualistic thinking sometimes battle it out with more collectivistic values that motivate me to think about others and evaluate what will happen next. So, if others do not do that, it can be frustrating.

Such cultural value differences can occur at individual, team, organisation and national level. If you are a perfectionist, who likes to deliver good work it can be awkward and frustrating when the teams around you have a slightly more ‘relaxed’ approach. It could be that the infrastructure or IT facilities within your country or organisation fail you, which affects your professional identity. It could also be that an individual does something that affects you directly. Perhaps a conflict ensues and you need to manage this. What can you do when the other really cannot understand your issue with what they’ve done? The other can say they’re sorry and your view on things may have changed forever, but is moving on the only option left?

Processing consequences is a form of emotional intelligence that is key to successful (cross cultural) management and good leadership. I am monitoring what is happening in The Netherlands, currently an interesting case study in terms of the rise of right wing extremism. What does it mean when a party like the PVV, which has strong policies on the maintenance of the Dutch identity, is so popular? If we vote for parties like that, are we processing the consequences properly or are we protesting against the status quo, not thinking about the future state of affairs if this party comes into power? And if it all does turn sour, what is the meaning of saying sorry, like so many leaders have done (and some still haven’t – left or right wing) for the mistakes they’ve made? In short, what are the consequences for those who do not process consequences?

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