Those who work or live around people from other cultures understand the importance of learning about the differences that surround them. What is often neglected, however, is the equal importance of knowing one’s own culture, values, and beliefs in order to relate more effectively across cultural lines.
Awareness of our own culture is important, because it can keep us from projecting our values onto others. Projection, in this sense, means the tendency to think other people are doing something for the same reasons we would. This can happen when we are unaware of the values that drive us and unable to distinguish them from those held by other cultures.
We see the world through a distorting screen created by our deeply held — often subconscious — values and beliefs. This reality can lead to an unintentional blindness and potential insensitivity to the values important to members of other cultures.
For example, mainstream American culture respects direct eye contact. Those born and raised in this culture assume people who do not look us in the eye are dishonest, weak, and/or evasive. By contrast, most Asian cultures teach that avoiding eye contact is respectful and considerate. This means an American employer is apt to interpret an Asian-born applicant’s lowered eyes as a sign of dishonesty, when he or she is simply showing respect for the interviewer.
The first step toward solving this problem is clear: learn as much about other cultures as you can. The second step is also clear, but frequently overlooked: understand your own assumptions about body language, communication style, or other cultural characteristics that impact your impressions of the outside world. This may seem easy, but it is not. Our own culture is such a part of us that we are typically unaware of its existence and implicitly expect the world around us to reflect our culture back at us. Some of us go so far as to think of our own culture as human nature and, to make matters worse, as one to which all should conform.
So if knowing one’s own culture is not automatic, how can we achieve this knowledge? The answer lies in exposure and observation. First, be around other cultures. The next step is impossible without the opportunity to interact with those who are different from you. Second, when around people from different cultures, watch for three things: moments of tension, misunderstanding, and points of conflict.
When one of these happens, don’t panic. Observe yourself and your culture. What did you do just before the tension, misunderstanding, or upset feelings arose? That act is part of your culture and was probably a factor in the moment’s dynamic. What you did was not necessarily wrong, but be aware it grew out of your culturally conditioned values and behaviors. Also, ask yourself: “What assumption was I making about the situation before the negativity started?” Those assumptions, like your behavior, grew out of your culture. Examining them will help awaken the cultural self-awareness that is so important in making cross-cultural relationships work. Yes, knowledge of other cultures is important, but looking at ourselves can teach us as much about cross-cultural understanding as exposing ourselves to a variety of different cultural experiences.