I heard the crash before I saw the (curious) results. How a broken cup led to cultural enlightenment.
My head turned toward the noise while my stomach fell. I gulped.
My exuberant, outgoing toddler had just dropped a ceramic cup on the cement floor. Shards flew everywhere. And to my mortification, before I could grab him, reacting to the cheers of the crowd, he picked up the biggest shard and dropped it again. More crash. More broken pieces. More mortification on my part.
Big grin on his part.
We were living in a tiny indigenous village in Mexico. By day I chased my toddler around the village to keep him away from the local goose who would snap at anything that moved. After he threw sticks into the ‘river’ (what you and I would call sewage), we’d round the corner to watch older boys play soccer before stopping at an elderly woman’s mobile fresh orange juice stand, made out of a grocery cart.
Days fell into an easy rhythm as I learned how to parent a toddler and live interculturally.
I didn’t always succeed.
When he dropped the mug I was embarrassed. The village was not economically well off and here he’d gone and broken something. I thought the people cheering him on were just being polite. So the next day, with toddler in tow, using my almost non-existent Spanish, I wended my way around the village looking for a replacement.
Until a kind person stopped me and explained that in the local culture it was considered good luck to have a child break a mug. If that sound odd to your ears think about what brings good and bad luck in your culture. Throwing rice over your shoulder for good luck perhaps? Seeing a black cat walk across your path means bad luck?
And so it is. Culture infuses everything we do, everything we think, everything that comes onto our radar as well as those things that don’t make it onto our radar because we deem them unimportant, awkward or unfamiliar.
Despite being so ever present I work with lots of workshop participants who aren’t sure what culture is.
What is culture?
- It’s the interpretive lens through which we view the world
- Culture is the software of the mind.
- It’s what makes meaning in our lives
- Culture is the collective programming of the mind that divides us into groups
- If we think of our operating system as basic human needs, culture is the software that runs us
(Sources: Hofstede, Binns, Plog and Bates, Huber, LeBaron Duryea).
But for something so ever present, it’s also elusive. Culture is like an iceberg. 80% of it is under water so to speak – or not initially visible. When I do intercultural workshops where participants estimate what they can see about someone’s culture in a few minutes, estimates are always wildly high.
The cultural conundrum
So here we have this thing (culture), that we all have (and share), and that we overestimate how much we know about someone else’s culture. Sounds like a conundrum right? You betcha.
Why is culture important?
Culture and the requisite intercultural communication and conflict resolution skills are pretty darn interesting and illuminating. But maybe you (or your boss) need a stronger case for the importance of culture. Here you go.
- Helps us as humans to learn, develop and grow
- Gives us better insight and understanding – towards ourselves, others and situations
- When a cultural lens is applied, it creates less conflict, less misunderstanding
Need a business case for culture?
Culture helps us create better services and/or products that reach more people in more inclusive ways.
How to gain an eye for culture. How to be more accessible and inclusive.
- Watch your language
Make sure you’re using language that is understood and is accessible and inclusive. For example I just listened to a fascinating podcast that brought up the use of the word tribe. It’s a no go. Take a listen why at “That’s not how that works” episode 28.
2. Watch your assumptions
Considerations will be different for different communities. For example can your target audience afford to get to your workshop? Is childcare an issue? Having a place to lock up bikes?
3. Watch the literacy level of your materials
A shockingly high percentage of folks are functionally illiterate. A simple feature in Microsoft word helps you instantly know the grade level required to read your documents is. Check it out: go to preferences; spelling and grammar; click on ‘readability statistics.’ Now every time you do a spell check the readability stats will also be displayed.
4. Power up
If you need to amp up your power (if you’re talking to folks who may disregard or diminish yours) stand more often than sit. Locate yourself more at the front and centre of the room. Take up more room with your body – put your hands on your hips more, move your arms around more. It works like a charm.
5. Power down
If you’re working in a marginalized community and need to diminish your power (so others can amp up theirs) do the opposite of the above. Sit more often than you stand, and especially at the side or back of the room. Make your body smaller in general.
6. Pace of speaking
Watch your pace of speaking. If you suspect you’re working with people whose first language may not be the language you’re operating in, speak slower. Use more pause time because it takes an enormous amount of energy and time to translate in one’s head from one language to another.
7. Pace of time
Watch for how you may need to pace your time, your meetings, your workshops. Ensuring breaks for prayer, for breastfeeding, for smoking etc. can all either make your space super inclusive or not.
I’ve learned so much from working around the world. Culture is a marvellous teacher, including and especially about your own culture.
Want to see how your intercultural skills stack up? Take this short intercultural survey I designed; S.A.K.E.© survey.
And til then may you break a, errrr, cup.