Have you ever lived in a country where time and again you rubbed against the local way of living and behaving? Where you thought that you could never really feel at home? And where maybe you even experienced a bit of scorn against this country and its people? This is quite a natural way of feeling when you and the dominating culture of your host country set different priorities with regards to your value system.
If you have answered any of the questions above with “yes”, it might be interesting for you to reflect upon this topic more profoundly.
Why is reflection beneficial? Well, let me tell you a story from myself. By the time I started living in Denmark I had experienced a whole bunch of international encounters. Starting by going to school and studying abroad (meaning not in Germany), working in Latin America, and having many international friends. Even though I considered to have quite a lot of intercultural competence, I didn’t reflect what this meant for my own value system and my own cultural identity. When I moved to Denmark I thought I would get along well with the country and its people because they are geographically not far away from where I grew up. However, I had not realized that my own cultural identity was by this time influenced by characteristics quite different to Danish (and in some points German) culture. While I loved working and studying in Copenhagen, I had a really hard time making any social connections and feeling comfortable in this society.
Back to the question: why is a reflection of your own value system beneficial? Well, for one, you will get to know yourself better. Living in different environments shapes your identity, so to speak your “personal culture”. Imagine your identity to be a bit like modelling clay.
Nobody is only “German” (or Slovakian, or French, or…). Our identity is shaped by a mix of experiences, a mix of outside influences and every new experience (for instance, living abroad, international friends or partners, books, movies, etc.) has an impact on our “mouldable” identity.
Reflecting every once in a while about your cultural identity will help you to get to know yourself and your priorities with regards to social interaction.
When we experience negative moments in foreign countries we often assume that people act in a specific way because they are superficial, rude, arrogant, disinterested etc. However, ask yourself, is it possible that entire nations consist of superficial or rude people? Or is it rather likely that two value systems are clashing? Understanding your own value system and the one of the country you are clashing with gives you control.
By understanding the underlying cultural values you will be able to make conscious decisions about how things affect you and about how you want to (re-)act.
So, how to go about gaining control of intercultural clashes?
First: Get to know your personal value system
There are several ways to get to know your personal value system. A number of companies nowadays focus on testing and developing intercultural competences and on predicting the “cultural fit” between a person and a country. If you work in a company supporting your intercultural development or have enough spare money on your hands, a professional analysis is a very enlightening and eye-opening experience.
If, however, this is not the case, I recommend starting your “intercultural self-awareness” as a reflection process. First think about situations that you experience as annoying or disrupting. Which situations are these? Why do they disturb you? What do you feel in these situations?
- A situation that makes me feel bad is…
- It makes me feel … Try to be specific with your feelings; there are more feelings than only “bad”. Use adjectives like sad, lonely, excluded, irritated, annoyed, angry, etc.
Once you have identified the critical situations and how they make you feel, think about why you might react this way. Which values are important to you? How do you wish to interact with people?
- Situation … makes me feel bad, because it is important for me that…
Once you have done this go through the same process with situations in which you feel comfortable or happy. If you haven’t been able to fill in all the blanks before, this second round might give you new insights on which values are important to you.
Second: Get to know the national culture of the country in question
Go to the country comparison tool on the Hofstede Centre homepage and type in whichever national culture you want to know more about. Besides the numeric analysis you will find a textual description of the behavior that is most likely and common.
Third: Compare and understand
Now compare this information with the things you discovered about your own value system. Where do you see differences? Where similarities? How can some of the behaviour you experienced as irritating be explained by this?
Are people really superficial, over-planning, and rude, or is it the way people of this culture tend to behave due to what this culture has collectively learned?
Understanding that people usually do not act from malice, gives back control over your behaviour in these difficult situations and lets you interact with people more successfully.
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