Laurette Bennhold Samaan was born with roots in three distinct cultures. But even as a multicultural native, she says, her missteps have taught her how cross-cultural competency is never fully natural, and cannot be reduced to formulas. Identity, context and humility are critical, she says.
Have you ever been given great advice that turned out totally wrong? Or stood up to do the right thing, only to find out that everyone disagreed with you?
I’m David Yang, this is Culturally Attuned, and today we’re going to hear what happens when good intentions and cultural norms collide.
At a glance, Laurette Bennhold Samaan seems well-prepared to navigate new cultures. An American born in Cairo; her husband is German, her daughter is Ecuadorean, and she’s lived and worked overseas during a rich career in international development. Who better to be thrown into the deep end of a new culture?
Today, we’ll follow Laurette from Russia and Japan, to West Africa and the Middle East as she shares misfires and stumbling blocks in her attempts to understand her surroundings. I’ll be your guide along the way, as we try and understand what went wrong for Laurette, and how we can be more culturally attuned.
Laurette Bennehold Samaan
A time that I felt like a fish out of water was probably the time when I spent in Japan for a short period of time. Obviously I knew I was going to a different culture. I knew I was going to look different. I knew that I didn't know Japanese, so all of those expectations were set prior that it was going to be different. However, when I got there, it was much more different than I expected. I felt much more like a fish out of water. I had, I was given a list of do's and don’ts. There were 22 of them and I memorized all those lists of do's and don'ts and I had them down 100%, had done some of those do’s and it was obviously a don't. So what I learned was that a do's and don'ts only go so far. Of course, they're essential for security reasons and safety reasons, but taken out of context, a do in one context is a don't in another. So I later learned that that list of 22 do's and don'ts for my experience was written for an older male. So I was a younger female. So what I was doing was inappropriate many times.
Some of the other things in Japan that really surprised me and I wasn't familiar with or expecting was every morning most of the staff would get together and do group exercises and it was a way to build team spirit and build engagement, which I actually then tried to bring it back to my next role. It didn't work so well in a different culture. And what I also didn't realize was that every paper that we received had people's personal stamps on them. And it almost reminded me of as a child where you have little rubber stamps and you stamp pieces of paper. So these rubber stamps were placed all over the page. Again, I couldn't read Japanese and they had given me my own personal stamp, which of course I felt very proud of and I stamped it on the paper showing my approval. The next day at a meeting I obviously had done something wrong and didn't exactly know what I had done wrong, but I had placed my stamp upside down, which means disapproval. So here was a situation where you don't know what you don't know and I certainly, and even on a list of the do’s and don'ts, that would have been helpful to know, but I couldn't have read the Japanese to know whether it was upside down or not. So I would have needed a cultural informant or someone to advise me as to what the stamp is, where it should go and how it should go.
A cultural informant is a local person who can serve as a bridge between cultures. They are steeped in the local culture but know enough of yours as well, to help bring understanding of the differences. This is especially important where your own values conflict with those of another culture.
Laurette Bennehold Samaan
There are many examples that I could cite where situations have gone against my core beliefs or my value system. One for example, was in West Africa where I saw people kicking dogs and from an US American probably Western point of view that feels not, that feels rude, that feels not supportive of animals. However, looking at that further and talking to people, the belief is that those dogs carry diseases and so by them kicking the dog, I was interpreting it very differently than they were interpreting it.
Another example of where my assumptions and values system was different and struck me, made me feel uncomfortable was just recently in West Africa seeing a woman carrying a huge pile of wood on her head and on her back while her husband was walking a few steps in front of her carrying nothing. And again, to me that felt unfair, possibly sexist, all of these different assumptions and perceptions came very quickly. When I talked to some people on the staff and I was very honest and direct again, that's a value of mine that they said, well the husband is actually very proud of the woman's strength and the woman's ability to be carrying this wood. So it's almost a status symbol for him to witness his wife being his wife doing this and others too as well. So those are pretty severe and strong examples.
I think it's very important for each person to come to the situation having, we all have values, but coming to the situation to have values where you feel that these are so core to you that you are not willing to budge on those or move, that they’re so personal to who you are. They're your nonnegotiable values. And for everybody, those are different things. So for me it was some of those examples for me when I was working at a refugee camp in Greece a few summers ago as a volunteer again, to help build world peace and to help show that there are many people around the world who are interested in helping and helping others, because I feel that everybody has a role to play in making the world a better place. So with the refugees, what I noticed was what we would call corporal punishment for some of the parents, with the children, especially having to do in a classroom situation where I was a teacher.
And to me that was a non-negotiable to me that felt like it was against the declaration of human rights. It was, it went against my core values and core principle and I needed to address that.
So I talked to the parents with an interpreter and explained to them that I think there were many ways that we could deal with this situation and that is one way. But I think there are other ways that they'd like to, I'd like them to explore. And I gave them a few of them and they chose one that they were willing to try and to do.
Humility is important. We all make assumptions about certain behaviors but it’s important not to pre-judge others without first trying to investigate the underlying values. Everybody's behavior is a reflection of their values, which may differ drastically across cultures.
Laurette Bennehold Samaan
So I remember being in the Middle East and working and inviting some of my colleagues over to my hotel room afterwards in the evening and they said Inshallah and I thought that meant, I know it meant if God is willing. But I thought that meant yes, if God is willing. And what I later found out was that it really meant if God is willing. If something comes up and that makes me not able to come, then I won't come or it's an easy, easier way out to say “no” without being direct and saying “no”.
I think there's very differing points of view as to how active someone is in their life and how, how much that's not left up to you, whether you call it fatalism or something else. So for example, some believe that there really is a need to suffer and suffering then helps deserve happiness and survival is enough to be happy. So God is my happiness or just being here. Whereas US Americans believe that we're ultimately in control of our happiness or misfortune and we would, if we're depressed, we would take a pill or we would see a therapist or that it's in our control.
Different cultures have different perceptions of time or lateness. But this story illustrates something deeper. Different cultures have worldviews that may reflect determinism instead of agency, or what we in the west often emphasize as free will, independent of social or cultural structures. We may see those structures as constraints; others may see them as guideposts or codes to live by.
I remember very clearly being in Vladivostok and the apartment complex elevator was broken and I was asking, well why doesn't anybody ever fix the elevator? And it was just a matter of well the elevator is going to be fixed when it will be fixed. Or I remember very clearly when I was in Fiji I would walk, I was walking by a local store every day that would have these artifacts from Fiji and I didn't have much time to do any type of souvenir shopping. And I really wanted to go into the store and every day I walked by and there was no sign on the door that would say store hours. And so I finally asked them when, when is this store ever open? And the man just shrugged and I thought he must not have understood me. And so a few days later I asked somebody else, when is the store open? And he laughed and he said, it's open when it's open.
Understanding cultural and social contexts requires an open mind—a constant search for cues or clues on how we, and our work, are being perceived.
Laurette Bennehold Samaan
So I arrived in the Middle East and of course I was very jet lagged and all I wanted to do was to go to my room and lay down. But what they wanted to do was tour me around. So I knew that it was culturally appropriate to be open to their hospitality. And so they toured me around and then I said, well, will we get started tomorrow morning? And they said, well, tomorrow morning we really want to show you other things. And I really felt like I needed to get down to business. I really felt like I had a limited amount of time here. I had two days and I really needed to finish this negotiation with them. So the afternoon I said, well, why don't we just sit? Why don't we sit together. We can have tea and let's just start brainstorming some ideas as to what things we need to accomplish?
So the afternoon, the head of the office didn't appear at the meeting we were supposed to have, which surprised me and he sent someone else and we went through and we tried to brainstorm some ideas and then the next day I went to the office and we continued in these negotiations and they had served me tea in the morning, which was nice hot tea and I'm a tea lover, so I enjoyed it. And then by early afternoon they served me another cup of tea but this one was lukewarm.
What I can say is that was their indirect way of telling me that the negotiations were not going well. And now in hindsight, of course looking backwards, the concept of even brainstorming ideas is a high risk engagement where you're throwing out ideas and they may or may not be taken. So right there that did not go over well.
The head of the office not coming to meet me and sending a messenger. That's a strong message also that things aren't going well because there's more information that's being sent in the context of the situation rather than the actual words that are being said. So by sending a messenger, by sending a next person in line instead of by sending the head of the department should have told me something. And then thirdly that that cup of tea was lukewarm, was the final way that they were trying to tell me that these negotiations are not going the direction that I'd wanted. So there's a lot of different dynamics that can happen in terms of communication.
Working across cultures is a constant learning process. At times, we can forget how our own identity and the influence of our own culture drives our behavior. And we can lose our footing when working in a different cultural environment. We may miss unspoken cues, get confused or frustrated, and even act in a way that’s not culturally appropriate. That’s all part of the journey of becoming culturally competent.
Laurette’s emphasis on cultural humility helps us move beyond a type of cultural competence that focuses on do’s and don’ts. She emphasizes the need for self-exploration, and awareness of how other cultures may perceive us, and the importance of honoring—not necessarily agreeing with—the beliefs, customs and values of others.
Have you ever broken an unspoken cultural rule? If so, what was the key insight for you and how do you apply that learning today? How would you define the core beliefs and values of your culture? How do you think those are perceived by people who come from cultures different from yours?
Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally aTuned. This has been a production by the United States Institute of Peace, with big thanks as always to our partner, Burning Man Project. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune in to more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Culturally Attuned Credits
Executive Producer: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook; and Dominic Kiraly
Audio Engineer and Sound Designer: Tim O’Keefe
Contributors: Honey al-Sayed; Jeffrey Helsing, Ph.D.; Kye Horton; Justine Ickes; Stuart Mangrum; Namiko Uno
Narrator: David Yang