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Updated 6 Oct 2015

When in an alien situation (in this case, a new cultural experience), it is very easy to jump the gun on deciding the causes of problems we may face. It is a cultural difference, of course, what else? Right? Wrong! 

Too often, expats decide prematurely that any issue that they may be facing is cultural and since it is presumed so, feel a handicap in addressing the situation adequately. We are so focused on the fact that we are in a new environment, that we are quick to blame cultural differences for any problem that we might face. What is the best approach to take in such cross‐cultural catastrophe situations?


Here is a step‐by‐step guide:

  1. Breathe: That's right, it's simple and it comes naturally to you, and, it's free! So why not?! Reacting to a difficult situation never did anyone any good. Responding to it, however, does.

  2. “Interesting”: I tell my participants not to forget to pack the most useful word in their vocabulary in their suitcase. The word “interesting”. Any new cultural experience is interesting – not good, bad, weird, amazing, strange, exceptional, or any of the words that tend to oscillate between poles. Keep it neutral, and see any situation as an “interesting” one. This helps you not to over‐react to any situation – be it the exhilaration you feel at the honeymoon phase or (what eventually leads to) the bitterness during the resentment phase.  

  3. Consider the possibilities: Before resigning to cultural differences that you “will never understand”, consider your possibilities. 


It could be any of the following

Organisational

Could the differences you face be particular to the organisation? When expats arrive at their host country, one of the first experiences they have are those that involve bureaucracy. Amongst signing those endless papers and taking those ridiculous (ahem! interesting) photographs, you may experience non‐urgency, lack of punctuality, lack of clear answers, endless waiting, etc.etc.

Don't make the mistake of blaming it on the country or the culture at that point in time. What you could be facing could be merely an organisational difference. You can be sure that if you visit a sports club next, you won't have the same experience!  

Individual

You have just arrived and you meet with the first native. You have a pleasant conversation, but you don't feel that the person is genuine somehow. She/he seems to want to take advantage of the fact that you are new to the place. The immediate psychological reaction is to start distrusting anyone else you come across.

I once coached a German student, who, a week into his project in Tokyo, had already decided that the Japanese could not be trusted. On further interviewing him, he revealed that while visiting the supermarket, he inquired if a particular tinned food was vegetarian (he was vegetarian) and was given an affirmative answer. He realised at home that it wasn't and that was when he concluded the untrustworthiness of the entire people. Though it is true that the sum of parts makes the whole, it is a fallacy to assume that the whole is exactly representative of the parts.  

Linguistic

I had several linguistic issues with my Spanish boyfriend before we sorted them out without concluding that Spaniards were x, y and z and Indians, you know, other letters of the alphabet. While the anglophones have words like morning, afternoon, evening and night to describe periods in the day, the Spanish are somewhat handicapped with mañana, tardes and noche. We would agree to speak in the “afternoon” (which for me, an anglophone, would roughly be around 13 o’clock to 16 o’clock);  the man would call me at 19 o’clock, which was “evening” for me and frankly, got me irritated at the tardiness. Or what I thought was tardiness. It turns out that the Spaniards, since they have only “tardes”, think the afternoon is anytime between 13 o’clock to 21 o’clock! A minor linguistic difference – but what could cause a lot of judgement, and perhaps, a glitch in the relationship.

The words used in a language need not always have direct translations into another. For example, when a native English speaker says that she/he is “upset”, it means that she/he can be anything between sad to angry, to just a neutral “upset” (“She accidentally upset the glass of water”). Few languages have a direct translation to the word – most have specific words for angry, sad, irritated, etc. To a non‐native speaker of English, depending on the context of the situation, it can mean a completely different thing than intended. And that's really not a cultural difference.  

Only when you have ruled out the possibility of these kinds of differences and you have experienced the same situation at various times (with various individuals) should you even consider the differences as cultural. Then, it is fair to see it as a cultural difference. 

Divya Susan
Divya Susan Varkey is a certified Intercultural Communications Practitioner and Associate Partner of Itim International, Helsinki, as well as a scholar at the Universita della Svizzera italiana in Lugano, Switzerland. With almost ten years of work experience in Communications and Public Relations, and having travelled in 14 countries, she uses her experiences and learning to conduct effective workshops for participants from all over the globe. In the years following her entry into Intercultural communications training, she has trained students and executives from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Morocco, Tanzania, China and India. Having worked and studied in multicultural teams, she believes in the power of diversity and that understanding “the other” can be the most enriching experience that one can have. 
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