Meeting a culture on its own terms


Today, I am participating on a panel at Brandeis University, where I’ll discuss some of the top challenges in crossing cultures and offer my tips for success. While there are many angles I could potentially explore, I have chosen two that, in my experience, have the power to really make or break an intercultural encounter.

Brandeis Panel. Image from Canva.

Meeting a culture on its own terms

As the famous quote goes, “We see others not as they are, but as we are.” This is especially true when we encounter another culture. When confronting something new, we do not revert to blank slates. Instead, we try to make sense of it by comparing it to what we already know – usually our own culture(s). Unfortunately, while this is totally natural and may even provide us with some initial scaffolding for understanding the new place, this approach quickly yields diminishing returns.

This is because as long as we view another culture through the lens of our own, we will be on the outside looking in. We will be able to see the differences, but we won’t know the why or the how behind them, or be able to make meaning out of them. And without this vital information, we will not be able to accurately interpret situations or discern the nuances of different contexts. This may lead us to jump to conclusions, take do’s and don’ts and cultural generalizations too literally, or come away with a more glowing or gloomy impression of the local culture than is really fair or realistic.

Consider a person who tries to learn the rules of chess based on how it compares to checkers. They may notice interesting parallels and differences, but may also be distracted by the wrong questions and absorbed in observations that are not particularly useful. Ultimately, their patience will wear thin, their perspective will be distorted, and their mastery will be stunted.

This is what happened to me when I first moved to Poland. I thought I had a good knowledge base and attitude, but when I looked around, I saw things that just didn’t sit well with me. I embarked on the thrilling hobby of identifying and evaluating everything that was wrong (wrong was usually something that worked better at home). This boosted my ego a bit, but it also took a lot of energy and made me miserable. It also discouraged me from making an effort and worse, steered me away from the very paths of inquiry that would have yielded the best insights.

Things started to change when I began to see Poland from its own perspective. Locals and Polish Americans in my circle shed light on why things were a certain way, and through ongoing courses at the university, I developed a much more robust and complicated foundation in Polish culture. Most important, I started to become curious and ask the right questions, like what does this mean in this context and what am I missing, instead of rushing to judgment based on what I thought I knew. I admit that there were still plenty of things that I did not like, but the more that I developed an ability to see the culture and its people the way they saw themselves, the more I could understand what was going on. At this point, I was ready for the second challenge.

Letting it be

Once you see a culture the way it sees itself, new doors to comprehension and adaptation will open. However, this also presents a new challenge, because paradoxically, the more you know about a place, the more you might discover things you don’t like.

This is a reality we more or less accept in other areas of life. Think of your close relationships, university, major, or job. The longer you are together, the more you may start to see aspects that displease you. However, except in extreme circumstances, we don’t immediately sever ties with friends, disown relatives, transfer to a new school, change majors, or quit jobs because we do not see eye to eye on everything. Instead, we find a way to work through it – at least as a starting strategy.

The same is true of being in another culture – but here we can get so fixated on whether we like it that we miss the bigger picture. But, I wrote in an earlier blog, liking it is often beside the point. Instead, it’s helpful to accept the things we can’t change, decide how to sidestep or negotiate the things we really can’t accept, and identify what our goals for the cross-cultural situation really are. By focusing on the reason for the encounter and what we want to get out of it, and realistically assessing our options, we empower ourselves to get the most out of the experience.

This was true for me, too. Once I realized that I didn’t have to like everything about Poland, I was liberated from pursuing a pointless goal, and I was empowered to make the kinds of decisions that mattered. For example, I determined that I could deal with inconveniences like long lines at the grocery store, and could even accept that people would probably push me off the sidewalk or that I would trip into potholes. However, for the sake of my health, I had to protect myself from coal pollution and indoor cigarette smoke. This meant that while I needed to adapt my activities in certain places and certain times, I also had a lot of remaining space where I could just let it be.

Keep Going

Even when we take a culture on its own terms and let go of liking, we still face a learning curve. Crossing cultures really is a journey and a process, and not something you can do “perfectly.” However, every time we try, we have the possibility of getting better, and the more we keep going, the closer we get to comfort, confidence, and competence.

Are you interested in having me join your panel? Or would you like to talk about how this approach can work in your life? Visit the contact screen and tell me about your event or situation, and we’ll talk!




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