Any relationship is shaped by a first meeting. To prepare those encounters, USIP trainer and cross-cultural expert Stephen Moles suggests we go beyond what’s in the rule books. Stephen suggests an approach for this work that he’s built from experience in more than 65 countries.
How can we work effectively across our world’s cultural divides? USIP and Burning Man Project travel to that frontier, hearing stories and practical lessons for working in unfamiliar cultures. The Culturally Attuned podcast complements USIP’s online, self-paced course on Cultural Synergy. Both help us cultivate the skills we need to do good work in a diverse world.
Everyone is different. Don’t paint with a broad brush. It’s advice that we hear all the time. But if generalizing is wrong, then what good are guidebooks when it comes to understanding new cultures?
This is Culturally Attuned, I’m David Yang, and our guest today argues that cross-cultural training has evolved past instruction manuals.
Stephen Moles has spent much of his career working overseas and is a trainer for cross-cultural competency. For Stephen, it’s all about trust and authenticity.
I think the major changes in the past decade or two in the field have been from an emphasis on kind of understanding the style or approaches of different people. So, you know, hand your business card with two hands to a person in Hong Kong which I tried and it didn't work all that well. The guy was early 30s. And he said, "Oh, I see you read the guidebook."
So I said, "Yes, I did." And he said, "You know I went to Stanford, and you don't, you don't need to do that." So here's the thing. I then had a meeting with the vice president of his organization, which is a large, multinational corporation with a couple of very high-end divisions within it. So one of the largest employers and one of the most important companies actually there was this in Singapore, and the guy who was the vice president was the brother of the founder of the organization. And he is about, at the time, in his early 70s and I walked into his office.
Did they use two hands or one to handle my business card, right? Because the guidebook would say, "Always use two," but that's not true with the guy who was 35 that went to Stanford. But is it true with the other guy?
So how the field has changed, I think is it's gone from kind of a do's and don'ts checklist approach to a placing emphasis on a couple of different sets of factors. One is, understanding who you're dealing with and how their life history, how their place in time might influence their expectations. So understanding the difference in generations, understanding the difference in the educational system in Singapore has changed tremendously in the past 20, 30 years. It's really, really different. The expectations and the messages that young people are getting now versus in the past, but the second thing and perhaps the more profound shift in both leadership training and cross cultural training, is the emphasis on self-knowledge.
You know, the idea that you can … no matter where you go, the most important person for you to understand is yourself. I've worked in about 65 countries around the world, many of these for short periods of time. And I will not say that I've mastered the guidebooks for each of those places. In many cases, learned a few sentences, certainly greetings in the local language. But an understanding of yourself and what your lenses are, what your buttons are, what makes you drawn to or pull away from a situation or a person, that's probably the biggest shift- is the focus on self-knowledge and frankly, self-management. So when I see that happening, what do I do with that?
Because if I know how to do that in Albania, and I get good at it, I can still do the same thing in Mali, or in Malaysia because it's not about the facts of the do's and don'ts, it's about understanding my own reaction and being tuned into what's happening around me so that I understand why I'm acting the way I am. And then what I need to do about it in terms of how I'm managing my reactions.
We asked Stephen what choice he made when he met the vice president. Did he give him the business card with one or two hands?
I gave it to him with two of course.
I think it goes to another maybe key competency or skill that you asked about earlier which is, I see so much of this field, the intersection, especially of international development and cross cultural communication, as being the, one of the central questions is, how do I … How do we give and receive respect to each other? Because when we know how to do that, then we can start to develop some trust. And while we can start to develop some trust, then we're able to function better as partners as a team. If something goes wrong, we're able to fix it faster, we're able to innovate better. So, the central question, I think, is to understand how do we give and receive respect.
I actually sat in the waiting room and thought about this for quite a while because he was running late for the appointment. And I thought my goal is to show respect for this person. And my best guess is that if I do this, he will understand that my intention is to show respect. Whether he would have preferred one way or the other, I don't know. But I think he would understand that that was my intention. And so that's what I did.
Being self-aware, making intentional choices about how we will interact with other people, and managing our own emotions -- those behaviors go a long way to fostering positive cross-cultural experiences. There’s more to it, however.
I can remember working with a gentleman in Jamaica, and we had been corresponding via email for maybe six or nine months. And I finally had an opportunity to meet him in person.
I was the expert on this topic in Washington. I was conducting a workshop, and we went out afterwards, I think we're sitting near the beach drinking a beer. And he starts talking to me about the things he's struggling with or the things he doesn't understand or the places where his program really needs help. And I said to him, "Why didn't you ever reach out to me?" And he said, "I don't know who you are. You're some expert in Washington. And that's not always a good thing for me to show… To ask a question that might make me look dumb or like, I don't know what I'm doing there is vulnerability there." Now that I know you I'll gladly send you email or reach out to you or call. But until I know you I'm not going to do that because I don't know if I can trust you.
I don't know if you're going to see my question as an indication of a weakness or deficiency.
Now of course, I'm thinking, "Hey, I'm a good guy, right? I'm here for all the right reasons. How can you possibly think that?" But it has to do with the posture of being the expert coming in from the outside, being the person that headquarters whatever like that.
I think I'm operating from a place of egalitarianism. That's how I see the way that I'm operating. And so I naively assume that my intention is clear to the other person and that they're perceiving it that way. But they may be thinking more about, you know, power differences. Whereas I'm thinking, "Well, that's not my … that wasn't my intention." And so there's opening your eyes to the difference about what you intend versus how the other person is reading those signals. So why might this guy not reach out to me and what could I do differently to try to create the conditions where it's more likely that he would do so?
I think it's related to it but a mindset of curiosity is a really powerful tool for a person working in cross cultural context. And then related to that, to me, is an understanding of how to ask powerful questions, both of yourself and of the people that you're partnering with that really get to the essence of what's going on here.
Be careful about being too confident that what you know is true. Because if you know if you are confident, overconfident that what you know is true, it can lead to arrogance, and it can also lead to not being open to new possible ways of addressing a particular situation. Whereas, if you take an attitude of humility, towards what you know, and perhaps towards who you are, you approach the situation with that, it allows a lot more possibilities to be open to that situation.
So, we’re challenged when working with others, particularly when beliefs and values conflict. And yet, every encounter presents us with opportunities. The opportunity to think beyond do’s and don’ts, to approach other people with humility.
I think one of the common challenges has to do with what posture we take towards the people that we're working with, whether it be a development or in peacebuilding, or even an exchange programs? What posture do we take to the people that we're that we're working with, that we're partnering with? So, if it's a posture of I'm going to help you, I'm going to fix this for you, you know that accentuates the power differences and sometimes that shuts down the ability to connect and build empathy. But we might get to feel great because we get to be the savior, we get to be the person that sets this right for these poor people, so to speak. So I think that dimension of that posture, then can exacerbate the power differences, and then people have a difficult time being honest.
We need to remain respectful and mindful of our impact on others so we can authentically stand alongside our partners as equals.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally Attuned. 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