As a Canadian living in Nairobi, Kenya, even after 8 years of living here there is still much that’s lost in translation. There’s a constant undercurrent of intercultural issues that swim through my day. You never know what’s going on below the surface.
Sometimes it’s funny – may I present the frickin elephant
Sometimes it’s confusing – it’s pretty frequent for Kenyan men to give me a hand flip (a sort of sideways shake of the hand) after I honk at them for what I would consider a serious driving offence. The hand flip means – “I have no idea why you just honked.”
Sometimes the cultural undercurrent is annoying – due to multiple voltages and formats, I have been this person juggling many plugs on many a trip
Mostly the cultural undercurrent is beautiful – for example learning to take things at a less hectic pace and to stop and say hello to people before diving into a conversation has been good for my soul.
The cultural undercurrents are present because we all see the world through our unique and particular set of lenses, which are often invisible until we bump up against ‘other.’
Our culture affects what comes onto our radar easily, naturally and comfortably. And our culture affects what we miss because it’s awkward, uncomfortable or not important.
What’s under the umbrella of culture?
Culture is the programming of the minds that divides us into groups (Geert Hofstede).
Culture is a combination of elements like gender, ethnicity, age, migration, physical ability, sex, sexual orientation, religion/spirituality, mental health, education etc.
Cultural elements are claiming the main stage
From gender, sexual orientation, economic disparity, gender-based violence, youth and mental health, here are but just a few examples of culture making the main stage.
- Megan Rapinoe’s remarkable and hard won international stage that she’s playing on (and I’m not talking just the soccer field) has inspired so many around issues of gender, sexual orientation and economic rights.
- The #metoo movement and the awareness of mansplaining and manspreading have all risen as current, critical issues.
- Young change agents, like Emma Stevens (pictured below), who was recently honoured by Sir Paul McCartney for her Mi’kmaq version of Blackbird are shaking things up and moving the cultural shift forward.
- I’m all for celebrating the much needed, it’s about time, recent building of awareness of mental health and special needs issues.
How to keep culture on the main stage – access and inclusion is everybody’s business
When our lens widens to be more inclusive everybody wins. When everybody’s voice can be heard we all benefit.
That’s why when I do interviews with new clients I always ask about access and inclusion issues. That is, I ask if there’s anything that I should know about that would affect peoples ability to participate in the workshop.
Here are some examples of what clients have told me and how I’ve adapted by workshops accordingly:
- Paying attention to when breaks are (so can participants can pray if need be at specific times)
- Focusing on how physical the trainings are (for people with disabilities)
- Taking a trauma informed view (I did a workshop for a group where someone had just returned from leave after having been kidnapped)
- Incorporating cognitive issues (one workshop had returned to work after brain surgery)
- Having gender on my radar by ensuring participation is roughly equal (even and especially when one gender tries consciously or unconsciously to take over the discussion)
Culture is constantly on my radar because it’s informed my personal and professional life so thoroughly.
Culture brings a sense of adventure, wonder, curiosity and insight whether I’m at home in Canada or Kenya or anywhere else.
Access and inclusion
By paying attention to what affects people’s access (from the workplace to our neighborhood spaces) we can be more inclusive and that means everyone wins, everyone has a voice.
Now go on and learn, laugh and lead.
Take a listen to Emma Steven’s stunningly beautiful version of Blackbird in her Mi’kmaq language. It’s even more poignant when you know that the Beatles wrote this after reacting to the racial tension in the Southern US.
I love the HSBC ads that frequently line the corridor when I’m boarding an international flight. Their ads about culture are pretty funny too. Check out this one about a cultural misunderstanding.
Like I’ve done with my initial client interviews, pick some cultural elements from above that are important to you and create a plan for getting them to and keeping them on the main stage.
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