Jun 2, 2009

Cultural Differences Make Us Similar

I recently had the pleasure of dining with Anne Randerson, Ph.d. of Cross Cultural Horizons here in Brussels. Her company helps families and executives transition easily into new cultures, and she specializes in Europe and Asia where she has lived over the last 20 years. I was interviewing her for a piece about doing business in Brussels that will appear in Executive Travel Magazine this fall and though my questions were few, we spent a couple of entertaining hours chatting about stereo types and nuances in cultures (and perception) that can make or break relationships. As an American living abroad, I am all too familiar with preconceived stereotypes that may be, at times, accurate, but are most often false.

Like in the US, or in any country, there is a unique history that has formed current attitude toward work ethic, politics, human rights, etc. We can't (shouldn't) impress our own values and beliefs on others because our history and foundations are significantly different. Not wrong. Not superior. Just different. Just as we can't assume that Europeans will ever understand our American obsession with work, big cars, big macs and guns, Americans may never understand why Muslims prey five times a day, or why women cover their heads. In reality, we don't need to agree with it, or practice it, we just need to understand these mosaics of cultures exist, and respect them. Just as we ask, often demand, the same in return.

Eric at Berlitz Cultural Consulting told me, after I jokingly prodded him for being 15 minutes late for our meeting, and despite the fact I saw him sitting in his office and he saw me waiting, that this is referred to as the 'academic quarter'. At universities , professors leave the doors open 15 minutes after the official start time of class, then the doors are locked. This translates into business too and unless everyone is present, people will wait 15 minutes before commencing a meeting. So, tardiness is not personal, as was my perception when I first arrived. I still hate it, but at least I don't take it as a personal slam. I could have also chosen to arrive at 2:10 instead of 2 on the dot and that would have been ok. I just didn't know. Now I understand. I still hate it, and I'll still show up at deux heure pile, but I won't be miffed when I wait and thus, I won't curse the bloody bloke who had no regard for my time because that was not the case at all. See how the game works?!

Point being (I have one) says Anne, the world is full of people with different histories, different motivations and different raisons d'etre. For me, that's the beauty of living somewhere different. Where our histories and values meet makes for interesting coffee chatter and forges great friendships. I have learned to appreciate the values taught to me as a young American, but I have also learned to accept, appreciate and admire other value systems I have found while living here in Belgium.

"In the end, we are all similar," said Anne. "Take the politics and language away and we are humans looking to be fulfilled, be respected, and enjoy a quality life. Understanding the differences is the key."

I have to agree with her( though it might help that she speaks six languages). We may look different at times, or prey or eat or dress differently, but we are all similar in our desire to be individually respected, uphold our personal dignity, and be valued as a human being. No headscarf or gun law changes that individual desire.

It was one of the most enlightening lunches I have had recently and I encourage you all to look differently at other cultures through eyes of a human, rather than those of a certain nationality. Or, call Anne...her stories of life as a professional woman in Japan and as a cultural coach in Europe are humorous, and you'll leave feeling inspired and delighted to be a stranger in a strange land.

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