I recently read that children go through their “terrible two’s” in part because they are experiencing the world through a huge cognitive mile stone, they understand that what happens in their mind does not necessarily happen in other people’s minds, which they do up until that point. This of course reminded me of my own son who went through a period of loving ketchup. At some point between the age of 18 months and two years ketchup wound up on his plate and he began to eat ketchup on anything, in large quantities, and by the handful. If that sounds off putting remember this simple fact children at that age assume everything in their mind to be true for what’s happening in our mind. Ergo “if I love ketchup Mom and Dad will gladly eat the ketchup off my hands that I offer to them because they too will love by the tiny fistful.” It is much more off putting to have an infant fist covered in ketchup shoved in your face with the words, “delicious Daddy eat some.”
From the terrible two’s onward there is nothing as exciting or frustrating as learning that what happens in our mind doesn’t always happen in other people’s minds. As Augustus is now three and a half it is exciting for him to see what we do differently or know differently from him ranging from “do you know that guy?” to “what do cars eat?” there is a lot he wants to know. Unsurprisingly it is when we don’t match up our thoughts or we as parents are inscrutable to him that we have conflict. Whether it be because we expect him in bed at a certain time, we don’t understand what he wants to watch on TV, or we expect him to wash his hand after going to the bathroom all of these incidents are rich with potential for an argument. Throw in the inability to really communicate well with an agreed upon language (or three in his case) and things can get rocky really fast.
That said it isn’t too hard to draw parallels from my son to anyone living and working in a “foreign” culture and environment. On one hand we really want to understand (or in many cases be understood) as we as people want to know what it feels like to be other people. We want to be able to see or feel what it’s like to be any another person’s shoes in part to look for similarities and in many cases to see the differences. Consider this parallel it’s like meeting someone with a very exciting day job like fire-fighter, when we ask about that person’s job it’s in part because we want to know what it feels like to rescue someone from a burning building because let’s face it as much as we might love our own jobs in most cases we are stuck at desks and not out saving the day. We want to experience the differences in our lives to enrich our own day to day experience, I can only imagine my disappointment if I met a fire-fighter and discovered he/she spent several hours a day making power point slides and designing workbooks.
On the other hand once we have a degree of familiarity in our day to day lives and we are in a context where those differences are no longer greeted with wonder we have a potential for a true failure to connect. As people we are conditioned to sort for similarity and difference we either expect things to be the same and therefore see similarities or expect differences and therefore only see those differences. In NLP this is one of many “Meta-Models” that describes how are brains work.
Now imagine you work regularly with someone who comes from a different cultural or national background. The odds are about 50-50 that every time they have a conversation with you (and you with them) that the conversation is already being drafted from the point of view that a. you both already will look at it from the same perspective and should expect a harmonious chat or b. you two are inherently different and things could go bad very quickly if that one thing you/ or they do happens again and people can’t seem to understand each other.
I know this isn’t only relegated to cross cultural circumstances, you can think about interacting with anyone close to you and see where the first example either went over well or ended in shock or in the second example where things were set to fail from the beginning. So what does this all mean? It means to make the way we communicate across cultures we almost need to come up with a “C” model that blends both. Like saying, “This is ketchup I like it a lot. How do you feel about ketchup? I somewhat expect you won’t like it but I think it would be great if you do because I like pleasant surprises. Also it’s no big deal if you don’t like Ketchup.” Of course on larger issues politics, religion, personal hygiene it can sometime be hard to accept the last line, “it’s no big deal” but really if everything is a big deal aren’t we really setting ourselves up for a failure to communicate to begin with?
I’ll leave today’s somewhat random post with a story of how I made someone uncomfortable based on his cultural projections and then seemed to redeem the day. Let’s rewind to April 2008, I was in Beijing for a workshop and enjoying one of the nicest month’s to visit China’s capital. It was the first time I had visited the city in nearly four years and I was struck by the changes as the city ramped up for the Olympics. This was also about the same time as riots were going off in Tibet and there was a government crack down that was very un-mediapathic happening on the international news and Beijing was getting flack for having forced many citizens out of old neighborhoods during the city clean up. As I rode in a taxi to my hotel I leaned forward to the driver who had been chatting with me and I said, “Hey Cabbie there is something I have to say about the Chinese Government.” He tensed visibly (in retrospect I think he was expecting the worse as Beijing often has highly opinionated foreigners who speak Mandarin unlike Canton) and said, “oh what’s that?” Picking my Chinese as best I could I said, “I really think they have done a good job with cleaning up Beijing I can’t remember ever seeing such a blue sky or so many green trees here.” He breathed a sigh of relief, “oh yes it’s true the city is much cleaner than in years before” he replied.
In this one chat we see a microcosm of what was going on. I had assumed that the driver was pro-urban clean up and was also attuned to this aspect of government. In other words I was in the mode of assuming the driver was in the same mind-set as I was. He actually might have been but, as it seems to me, he was sorting for difference and expected a conflict based on possible prior experience and what the news was emphasizing about the foreign perspective on China at the time. At that time local news had been covering how foreigners had interrupted the torch run in protest and there was an outbreak of patriotism/nationalist sentiment at the time. Instead we were both pleasantly surprised that the conversation went well. On my part because the driver understood what I was saying and on his part because I wasn’t there to point out to him the “failures of his country…”
To me the lesson here was approach each interaction with someone else with the patience this cab driver showed. Expect what ever you want, but let yourself be pleasantly surprised. Try to understand that no matter how good their language skills are if they are not a native speaker there is always a chance that things came out wrong. And finally be able to laugh at your discomfort and expectations because they are probably what is making communication so hard to begin with.