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Don’t fool yourself - culture awareness starts with… you

Posted on July 03, 2015

I used to think that the main obstacle, as someone of French origin, to working in the United States, was the understanding of my foreign business environment. I had not realized that in fact my biggest challenge was to become better aware of my own cultural conditioning.

Don’t fool yourself - culture awareness starts with… you
When I first arrived in New York City nearly 15 years ago, I was surprised to discover that many of my co-workers saw French people as genuinely friendly, sometimes sophisticated, but often had the view that they were arrogant and lazy. At the same time, I saw industrious, hard worker American colleagues who also seemed to be in a constant hurry - and as a result - were occasionally rude. How were we going to work effectively together and communicate successfully? Who was going to make the first `cross-cultural move´?!
I quickly realized that cultural awareness had to start with me:
- I asked foreign colleagues to describe business men and women from France. It was an effective way to see myself as others were seeing me and possibly experiencing me.
- I learned to observe, recognize and go beyond my cultural conditioning.
- I was careful not to project similarity, and did not assume that my colleagues were more similar to me in culture than they were in reality.
- The only way to be was certainly not "my way". And unsurprisingly the only way to see the world was also not just "my way".
- It was important to understand and respect the `cultural´ point of view of another co-worker, but it did not necessary mean that I had to accept or adopt it. Instead, I realized that the key was to develop empathy in order to minimize self-fulfilling stereotypes and hasty judgments.
Working, interacting, collaborating, communicating with a culture that is foreign to us is no easy task. I am not necessarily `lazy´ because I enjoy a long lunch break when I have the opportunity once in a while. And my colleague is certainly not `rude´ because he just simply needs to go from point A to point B in the most effective way.
In seeking to appreciate the true significance of cultural awareness, we must start by examining ourselves. “What is known least well, and is therefore in the poorest position to be studied, is what is closest to oneself”. --- Edward Hall, Anthropologist