In this final episode of Culturally Attuned we travel around the world to hear stories from five seasoned practitioners on how to work and communicate effectively across cultural divides. From their parting advice we learn the importance of cultivating relationships with local counterparts that create trusting, inclusive, and mutually beneficial connections.
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.
This is Culturally Attuned. Brought to you by the United States Institute of Peace, in partnership with Burning Man Project.
Throughout this podcast we’ve featured guests who have traveled the world into unfamiliar places and strange cultures, and shared with us their advice, lessons learned, and even stories of failure.
In this final episode of Culturally Attuned we’ll revisit key themes from this series that are critical to bridging cultural differences and building lasting collaborative relationships, personal and professional. Unlike in past episodes, today we feature a suite of guests – Anjali Niyogi, Oge Onubogu, Andre Ball, Namiko Uno, and Tabatha Thompon – who share their experiences from different corners of the world.
First off, we head to northern India, where Dr. Anjali Niyogi was working in a rural medical clinic. We are reminded of how easy it is to be blindsided by cultural norms in foreign environments, and thus cause unintended offense.
I mean, one that, you know that that stuck with me mostly because I do health stuff was I kind of I walked into clinic one day, and this is in the mountains and it's cold and I was wearing a sweater and I was wearing it inside out and, you know, rushed out of the house and showed up the clinic and one of the clinic staff kept sort of very gently telling me that my sweater was inside out.
And, you know, I was much younger than and I was coming from the United States in the U.S., I feel like we use sarcasm and humor in a different way than people in other parts of the world use. And so I just sort of, you know, eventually said, yes, yes, I understand that my shirts on inside out, you know, but it's to keep me warm, and it's doing its job, no matter how I wear it.
And there was sort of the silence for a while and one of the guys kind of came and, you know, pulled me aside and said, well, here we wear our shirts inside out when someone has died. And here I was the clinician or the, you know, the clinical, the medical student in this clinic and had just created what seemed like you know, for the whole clinic went silent and it was a really big deal for them. And, you know, I was just flippant and not knowing anything.
Mistakes are easy and common. Yet, having an attitude of humility is important to recover and mend relationships.
Next up, Oge Onubogu takes us to West Africa where she fell victim to bias and stereotypes from professional colleagues in the field of international development and peacebuilding. Too often people jump to conclusions or make broad assumptions based on subconscious or conscious bias. Oge is the director of West Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
A few years into my career, I had traveled to a country. And I had traveled with a junior staffer. And we were supposed to have a meeting at one of our US government embassies. And obviously, there are not a lot of people who look like me who are in this field of international development, or international peacebuilding. I am a female and I am of African descent. And there are not many minorities, not many people who look like me who are in this line of work. And so we had traveled to an African country, and sat in a meeting in one of our U.S. embassies. And in that conversation, when I walk into that conversation with this junior staff person, everybody else in the room is white, white male, white female in the room on the other side of the table, and we start having a conversation. And throughout the conversation, they do not make eye contact with me. They make eye contact with the junior staff who is in the room with me, who is a white man in the room. And throughout the entire conversation, probably about ten minutes of the conversation they continue making eye contact with him. And then at the end, they asked him, so what do you think about this? And his response to them was, well, I don't know you, you're gonna have to ask my supervisor what she thinks about it.
And he looks at me.
And they all turn and look at me. And at that moment, I could tell that they were, they were aware that they had basically not handled the situation properly. And they hadn't acknowledged me or my position or the role I had, effectively, because in their minds, they probably they didn't assume that someone who looked like me was going to be in that position.
So the way I handled that situation was not to point fingers at anyone, but to let them go through that process of self-awareness. It's always important to let people go through that process on their own, to understand what it is that they may have done wrong, and be gracious in that moment and help them walk through it. Because at the end of the day, people come into certain positions with preconceived notions or certain stereotypes, and in reality, they're not many minorities as well in this field. And so I think it's very important to let them go through that process. Because by allowing them to understand and walk through the process of what they've done wrong, or where they've heard, allowing them to walk through that process only makes them stronger and ensures that they will not repeat the same mistake again. So it makes it better for everyone at the end of the day.
Our biases, whether conscious or subconscious, impact almost every encounter. These can be encounters on a large scale, or our everyday encounters. By understanding our own biases, we are able to better engage with others. Andre Ball shares a personal example of how people often unconsciously resort to stereotypes.
Andre Ball: I've definitely had experiences where I would be talking to somebody on the phone and several experiences - a lot of experiences actually - with people that I've never met before, and then meeting them in person, I've had people come up to me and say, “you know, just based on our phone conversations, I didn't expect to see you.”
And when I hear things like that, I think, well, I don't know who else you would expect to see. But I kind of understood as I grew older, what that kind of meant. People, again, would maybe expect someone who speaks a specific way to maybe look a specific way.
Someone who sounds maybe a specific way to act or be a certain way, right? And, me being black - and I would imagine that would be a major piece of it - and speaking maybe in the way that I do, which is the way I naturally speak, they might not have picked up that I was black, or maybe they might not have picked up that I am the way that I am or that my mannerism is the way that I am. So, yeah, that experience, it definitely happens. And I think, again, it's based on that type of expectation that a lot of people have. Those expectations come from a lot of different places.
What's interesting, and the reason why I'm intentional about saying that is because who I have gotten that comment from varies. I've gotten that comment from a bunch of different people: white, black, Hispanic, Filipino, a bunch of different people. And I think, too, you know, is it like a black person saying, “you sound white,” or Hispanic person saying “you sound white” or white person saying “you sound white” that carries some sort of weight to it? I don't know.
And then the other piece of it, too, is like, again, we're all human. For me, when I talk to somebody on the phone, I automatically have an image of them in my head and if I picture this somebody to be white, black, or Hispanic or whatever, it might pop up in my head and then I'll meet them in person and I will be surprised, I'll be like, ‘Whoa, you know, I didn't, I wouldn't have imagined.
I guess what I would change is how I express that surprise. I guess I wouldn't tell the person. I wouldn't say, ‘Oh, I didn't expect you to be this way or sound this way.’ But that in itself, not saying it and me thinking it is something else. Me thinking it is kind of related to what I was saying before about practicing being mindful and being open.
Next up, Namiko Uno shares a story of her first visit to Africa, in a rural village in Zambia. Even with the best of intentions, mistakes are common. But with an open mind, we can learn and adapt and become more culturally attuned. Namiko is a somatics coach and practitioner living in Oakland, California. She is also a former staff member at Burning Man Project and assisted in the production of Culturally Attuned.
Before moving to Oakland, California, I spent seven months living and learning in a rural village in Zambia. Originally I had gone to Zambia to visit my sister and her partner who were working in the Peace Corps. And I went there originally for two weeks and ended up staying for seven months. And the village had no electricity, no running water, no paved roads. And it was my first time traveling outside of the U.S. or Europe.
And so when I arrived, I was able to be held in that environment and really get to know people right away. The first night I arrived in the village, after a long, long bus ride and a long bike ride, I was immediately welcomed in and invited to a neighbor's home for dinner.
And so arriving at my neighbor's home for dinner, I saw the woman of the house and I'll call her Bomio. And so after we greeted each other initially, it was time to eat and I was invited into the home. And I rinsed my hands in a bucket of water and slipped off my shoes, I at least knew to do that growing up in a house that did not wear shoes inside. So I took off my shoes and ducked under and went inside. And it was really dark inside and it was kind of cold and it felt small. And me being someone who's 5’10” I felt like I was taking up a lot of space. And so I made myself small, crouched down and sat on the floor to try and make some more room for other people.
Then Bomio came up to me and she handed me this wood carved stool like gesturing for me to sit on it. And I didn't want to take it you know, I wanted to convey that I didn't need to be treated in any special manner, that I was like, okay to sit on the floor. But I saw that she got a little bit more demanding in me taking the stool and her voice raised. And I picked up on that. And so I took the stool and I sat elevated above everyone else for the remainder of our meal.
And as the guest, I was the one who was invited to eat first, right and so I picked up the serving dish and it was filled with this mushroom-like stew. I wasn't sure what it was. But I brought it really close to my face. And I just inhaled deeply and made this like “yum” sound, really trying to convey my enthusiasm and my gratitude. But when I did that, I felt the energy shift in the room, everyone went kind of quiet. And I opened my eyes and looked around at everyone. And I could see that my hosts were kind of moving away from me, their mouths were shut tight, their eyes were a little bit more hardened. And so my stomach turned and clenched. And I felt that I had offended them. Right, which is the last thing that I wanted to do. But I had clearly offended them. And I wasn't sure why. And so all these thoughts were going through my head, like was it that? Was it the sound I made? Was that inappropriate? Did I touch the communal bowl? And was this an issue of germs? Like was I smelling it and suggesting it might be bad? I just wasn't sure. And so I try to kind of make amends by taking a big like heaping spoonful of this, to show my gratitude.
And in doing so, I accidentally served myself about half of the bowl of soup, which was meant to be dinner for five people. And I hadn't realized that until I looked at my sister, and she gave me a knowing look like a little eyebrow raise in terms of like, what are you doing? Why are you taking so much? And so I picked up on that and went to put some of it back. Which also was an awkward thing to do. And so I just kind of sat there awkwardly, not knowing how to move, how to be in that space.
And to break the silence, I asked my sister to translate for me. And I inquired about what kind of stew it was, there were smells that didn't recognize, shapes I didn't recognize inside of the stew. And my sister told me that it was a meat stew. And so my neighbors, my new neighbors had killed one of their chickens in order to honor my arrival in the village, and as she told me this, I took it in, I nodded my head slowly, and my thoughts and my stomach started to churn because I was a vegetarian. I had been a vegetarian for five years. And so I really sat there with this dilemma of do I eat the stew and try to be a good guest? Do I honor my own personal ethics and my bodily health? And was kind of stuck in that in-between position and so I ended up eating around the meat and then giving the meat to my sister's partner who then explained to our hosts, like what vegetarianism was, and really tried to contextualize some of my behavior.
One of the important lessons of intercultural engagement is that there is no magic formula that always tells us what the right thing is or what not to do. Here is how Namiko reflects on that first dinner in Zambia.
After the meal, you know, we left and I was just, I was left with this kind of sinking feeling like I hadn't shown up like I wanted to. I felt like a very stereotypical American tourist. And what I wanted to feel like was a relatable local. And yet, the reality is that I was not a local. I was someone with immense class privilege who had flown from New York to Zambia, and my mere presence in that place really connoted economic mobility, right, this sense of choice, deciding to be there, choosing to be there, choosing to leave. And I was an outsider. And this also made me really uncomfortable because even though I'm bi-racial, I have white-passing privilege and I also grew up in a middle-class community with a white racial lens. And my comfortability was often centered growing up. And so I defaulted to wanting to skip the feelings of discomfort that come with being new at something. And I didn't want to take the time to really acknowledge the dimensions of difference and build trust, and be seen and be witnessed in my vulnerability, and really attune myself to social cues, I just wanted to cut to the chase and like, be a local.
And I was so concerned with belonging, and not being other, the “other”, that I wasn't really able to take that first step of being a gracious guest and doing the labor of deep listening, which I feel like is essential when you're in a new place, in a new community and in a new context, that practice of deep listening.
Cultural competence is, at its most effective, a process of self-discovery. It requires us to remain flexible and move beyond fixed agendas and schedules. Building trust and creating relationships are key to working within different cultures. Below, a number of the experienced practitioners you have heard from remind us of the key elements and tools from this course. Tabatha Thompson, Director of Partnerships and Outreach at the Horizons Project, reminds us that cultural sensitivity is being aware of our impact as outsiders and ensuring that locals drive the priorities.
You may have a project that you need to get done, or indicators of success that you have for your organization, but you're not actually the one that's living in the environment and affected by the conflict, or the emergency or the crisis that is going on. And when your project is done, or your work is done, you're not the one that remains. And so for me as an outsider, again approaching the work with humility, but also making sure that you understand why people are motivated to do the work that they're doing, and these different communities and what makes them tick, and moving beyond the transactional relationship and project space is so important because they're the ones that are going to drive the work during the project and after you're gone. And if your idea of success is to make real change, or have a real impact, the only way that you're actually going to be able to do that is if someone feels comfortable and trust you and feels like you have their best interests at heart and you have their community's best interest at heart, even if it means maybe needing to slow down or to take a pause in the project to really understand what is going on.
Whether you are passing through as a visitor, or unpacking your bags for longer, we hope you’ll take time to step back, and observe all the new, wonderful delights of another culture. Soak in and enjoy all the new experiences. Building new friendships and growing relationships is one of the most meaningful and enjoyable aspects of exploring. Ask questions, listen and connect with others. Enjoy discovering your similarities and differences.
If you are a person with perceived inherent power, privilege, or resources, it is important to remember to spend extra time listening and learning. If you are working on a collaborative project in a community other than your own, try to resist the temptation to be the one with the answers. Small things go a long way toward becoming a respectful visitor, colleague, or neighbor in a community that you are engaging with. Most of all, remember, that while the work is serious, life is a journey of learning. Humor is an asset, and when complemented with humility, we can take ourselves lightly enough to keep moving forward with joy. This is the work we chose and we know that we will likely continue to both stumble and grow.
We hope you enjoyed this podcast. We are grateful to all of our guests, across all episodes, who shared their stories and insights, as well as those who worked behind the scenes to bring this podcast to life. In fact, they strived from the beginning to create the kind of learning experience they wish they had, years ago, before they got on their first plane ride to an unfamiliar place… full of excitement and adventure, yet naive to important matters of engaging effectively in other cultures. But in our increasingly diverse and connected communities and world, one doesn’t need to hop on a plane to engage with others meaningfully and respectfully. For many, we may just need to walk down our own street.
Culturally Attuned was produced by Dominic Kiraly at the United States Institute of Peace, in collaboration with Christopher Breedlove and Kim Cook at Burning Man Project. I’m Dominic Kiraly. Thank you for listening and joining us on this journey to become more . . . culturally attuned.
Culturally Attuned Credits
Produced, engineered and narrated: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook