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

  1. Stephan Dahl says:

    Excellent point! Indeed – a very fundamental point (and one that so frequently overlooked, probably because so many people find it easier to focus on the “different”, the other, but so hard to look at themselves. It would actually be great if it could be incorporated more explicitly into the various definitions of culture… not sure how, but maybe along the lines of “Culture is a fuzzy set of attitudes, beliefs, behavioural norms, basic assumptions and values that are shared by a group of people, and that influence each members’ behaviour and his/her interpretations of the meaning of other people’s behaviour” — which includes both the own behaviour as well as the observed behaviour of others.

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