Remember that time when your mom or dad or caregiver stood with a ruler between your nose & theirs? You know, that time they said ‘this is how far apart you stand in social conversation.’
Nope? No memory of that?
Of course not. You implicitly learned how far apart to stand when talking to someone without a ruler in sight. You know precisely when someone stands ‘too close’ or too far away when speaking to you. No ruler required.
It’s one of hundreds of things you learned implicitly about your culture.
And the best way to learn about your own culture is to immerse yourself in another.
I was raised in a pretty monoculture community. Everyone looked & acted pretty similar. Except for my 5 year old best friend & her family. When I slept over I thought I’d died & gone to heaven. I reveled under their puffy marshmallow thingey’s that were utterly foreign to me.
Can you guess what I’m talking about?
Duvets. Susi’s dad was Hungarian & her mom was German & all their beds had duvets. This was something my little self had never seen before (that & some German art on their walls, the heavy dark bread they ate & oh bliss of blisses when Uncle Reinhold would come visiting with German gummy bears).
Totally unknown, totally foreign & completely exciting & welcomed.
Who knew making your bed could be so easy?!
Those diverse elements of culture lit a fire in me, one that was fanned by joining an international leadership program as a teen. I was hooked. I signed up for any & every cultural exchange opportunity I could get my hands on. Which is how I found myself in the Artic in the middle of winter, leading a youth exchange to a tiny Inuit village, with frozen nose hairs in -72 Celsius weather.
Culture infuses our lives. It’s the collective programming of the mind that divides us into groups (Geert Hofstede).
The interpretive lens through which we view the world. It not only frames everything, it determines what’s in the frame (what’s worth paying attention to) & what’s not.
In fact culture is so pervasive & influential it can be hard to see.
It can be hard to see how our culture is influencing us. How it’s influencing how we teach, how we learn.
And yet, there’s gold in them thar hills. Cultural diversity is key to innovation, to understanding yourself & others. It’s integral to bridging – getting from ‘that is awkward, weird, foreign, uncomfortable’ to ‘how interesting, how different, I had no idea, how cool.’
Understanding & welcoming cultural diversity is no less than the key to world peace & social change because it dramatically expands our learning, our options, our choices.
As trainers it exponentially expands learning because everyone’s learning from each other, not just you the trainer.
And the best way to learn about your own culture is to immerse yourself in another culture. Now don’t get your knickers in a knot, that doesn’t have to mean a plane ticket to a far off land.
Simply check out what your & other organizations have to say about their culture. In my years of dipping into & out of hundreds of client’s organizations I’ve seen cultures that:
- Prioritize metrics with walls plastered with huge charts of numbers. Seriously, they were stacked side-by-side all down the halls. It wasn’t hard to see that a culture of achievement through hitting tangible numbers was valued.
- Prioritized humanity & alleviating suffering. I did a residential teambuilding for a client after some of their staff had been caught in a terrorist attack & were convinced they were about to die. It was clear their culture valued peace building, effecting social change.
- Prioritized competition. For a UN client, in another teambuilding event, during the evening trivia quiz, I was doubled over laughing at how competitive the teams were. They were showing their high stakes, competitive, high achieving culture.
- And I’ll never forget doing some strategy planning for another UN client who were all primatologists. We happened to be at a venue with monkeys, whereupon everything stopped & the focus was on the fur balls. These folks were showing their conservation culture.
No matter what you teach, you’re missing out if culture isn’t part of your teaching picture.
Especially because we tend to teach how we like to learn, which is great … for your participants who learn like you do.
We tend to teach from our own perspective which has its limitations based on age, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc. (Remember the frame thing; culture influences what’s in our frame of reference & what we keep out.)
Compounding this is we tend to think we know waaaayyy more about a person’s culture when we first meet them than is possible. That’s our brains wanting certainty. So we jump in with assumptions to keep our brains happy & calm.
So how can you catch the edge when it comes to culture & benefit from all it has to offer?
Here are some amuse bouches to tease your appetite for thinking about how culture influences both your teaching & your content.
Seriously, this is really important & can help you amp up your impact.
- Don’t make assumptions. For example, the functional illiteracy rate in Canada is shockingly high; 48% of Canadians have issues with literacy. And in Kenya, 1 in 4 adults is illiterate. Keep things simple but not simplistic. I once worked with a thoroughbred horse breeder who couldn’t read or write a word but (of course) was whip smart. Check your content to see what grade level is required to read it. You can do this really easily in MS Word under preferences; spelling/grammar; check readability statistics. Now each time you do a spell check it will show what grade you need to read your document. (Btw this post is grade 7.2.) Cool huh!
- Do make assumptions. In today’s world of increasing awareness of mental health issues, I always assume that at least one person in each group I’m working with has mental health issues. Brush up on your trauma informed teaching.
- Formal & informal lenses. Some cultures, generally speaking, are formal. There are specific ways to dress, speak, relate to others etc. And some are more informal. Think about who is in your workshops & if you need to amp up the formality or decrease it be more informal. When I first moved to Nairobi from Vancouver I was surprised when younger people addressed me as Mrs. Ragan (a couple times I actually swiveled my head around looking for my MIL).
Want to learn more about how to enhance your trainings with a cultural lens? Check out my upcoming online Training of Trainers workshop October 18th from 6-9 pm Eastern African Timezone (click here to find the time in your timezone if you don’t live in East Africa).