I’ve been traveling a lot lately for my UN work; Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana and to Mauritius. Part of my go-with-me-everywhere is a series of plug adapters so I can get my gear working and charged up without fail.
Sometimes though, it takes a few twists and turns (and even moving the bed to reach the outlet) to get things right. Like the example above, too many plugs can get jammed up and things end up lost in translation.
Here’s three examples where culture caused a lost in translation situation.
Before you read the ‘answers’ below, see if you can figure out what was going on.
- I was living in an Otomi indigenous village in Mexico and my son dropped a ceramic cup. When it shattered everyone cheered enthusiastically (that’s him above).
- The time a colleague working in Bosnia held up three fingers, wanting to order three beers, and four beers arrived.
- Or the time I was traveling
wayyyyup in the Canadian Arctic in the middle of winter and I didn’t think the Inuit elders were answering my questions.
All three are examples of when things have been lost in translation. Can you relate to those times when question marks dance above your head and you’d do anything to figure out just what the heck is going on?
A big part of the problem is being uncertain. Our brains don’t much like uncertainty.
Uncertainty causes awkward situations, which trigger wide-ranging emptions like confusion, anger, embarrassment, fear and feeling like we don’t belong.
When it gets really serious, our brains will lead us astray in an effort to belong and gain some certainty. This is one-way gangs and radicalization work.
But how do get back our equilibrium in a confusing situation where your sense of direction is mixed up? How do we gain some traction, some way forward, some more certainty?
It’s critical to know that you’re your own normal bar.
Whatever you judge to be ‘normal’ is being judged by your own measuring stick. What’s so called ‘normal’ (regular, usual) to you can be wildly irregular to someone else. Your normal bar can be wildly different from someone else’s.
Cases in point:
- Turns out it’s considered good luck for a child to break a cup in the Otomi culture. While I’d been embarrassed at my son’s accident, it was actually a good thing
. Theculture my colleague found himself in the beer example above starts counting from the thumb, whether or not the thumb is raised. Therefore when he raised 3 fingers, the server took it as him wanting 4 beers because she was counting his thumb.
- In my Arctic example, I realized I was asking questions that could be answered by yes or no and the Inuit elders who greeted me were
in factanswering my questions. While I was waiting for a verbal yes or no, they were raising their eyebrows (for yes) or squinching their noses (for no).
So how do you get from lost in translation to extending your normal bar and being open to other ways of doing, thinking and being?
Try the 4 P’s:
- Pause; stop, take a deep breath and admit to yourself that you haven’t got a hot clue what’s going on.
- Pivot; brainstorm what from your ‘normal bar’ could be causing you to make assumptions. In my case, with the Inuit elders, I was waiting for a verbal response.
- Plan; open the fan of possibilities and realize there’s more than one way to move forward and get unstuck. Brainstorm some options and make a plan.
- Practice; put your plan into action. Get going. Get unstuck. (And if it doesn’t work, start the cycle over again.)
Life is going to throw you some delightfully delicious (at the best of times) and excruciatingly confusing (at the worst of times) situations where you feel like someone’s changed the rules on you. When that happens, remember it’s an opportunity to extend your ‘normal bar’ and with the 4 P’s, pause, pivot, plan and practice, you’ll soon be feeling less stuck and more stellar.