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Lessons in Cultural Literacy

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I still remember my first trip to Japan. Surrounded by the signs and sounds of Japanese, I felt utterly lost. Unable to decipher even the most basic information in restaurants and on city streets, I retreated into myself. It was hard to stretch into unfamiliar territory. When I asked questions, people reacted in ways I couldn’t quite understand. I simply couldn’t read their psychology. In an instant, I understood what it means to be illiterate.

Only when I got home, relieved to be back in the United States, did I fully recognize the personal cost of global illiteracy. Like children and adults who can’t read, I had hidden the fact that I couldn’t understand the verbal and nonverbal cues around me. Although intrigued by the differences, I spent a lot of energy protecting myself for fear of appearing foolish. I felt defensive, making it difficult to fully experience the world of Japan.

In the new global world of business, we are all beginning readers. Like children, we must learn to read the world’s new language by looking deeply within ourselves, engaging in more complicated human dialogues and sharing our full selves in the process. To accomplish this, we need leaders at all levels who understand and master these cultural challenges and turn cultural diversity into an asset. This need for cultural intelligence is one of the most critical skills in our borderless, multicultural world.

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Here’s the problem: We know this is a challenge, but we often don’t know how to be optimally successful in this global environment. Some of us live in denial, ignoring the cultural differences among us. Others see the differences but lack the knowledge or skills to be consistently effective. Still others are true global leaders and global citizens and have much to teach us about operating in the world.

I recently returned from Japan on business where I facilitated a group of soon to become CEOs from around the world. Fortunately, since my first trip to Japan twenty years ago, I had experienced Japan several more times and have enjoyed learning about riding the subways, navigating the streets, interacting with the people and appreciating their beautiful culture. While certainly not mastering it, I am feeling much more comfortable. This trip I was caught completely off guard, not by the Japanese, but by a lovely interaction from a man from Spain.

We were going around the room with each executive talking about the one personal leadership quality that he had to work on. The gentleman from Spain shared with the group his need to manage his “temper.” As a psychologist I was quick to respond, “That seems so out of character, you seem so soft-spoken, almost shy in your demeanor.” He smiled and gave me a good lesson in cultural intelligence. “English is my third language,” he said with a smile. “I am more comfortable speaking in French, and Spanish is my native tongue. If I was speaking Spanish you would see my passion, exuberance, confidence, and temper.” I was reminded how easily it is for only English speakers who don’t know a second language to misinterpret the values, psychology and underlying thoughts and emotions of people for whom English is not their mother tongue. What a great lesson for the expert!!

Here are some other lessons I have learned along the way:

Authenticity is the new international currency. Be real and honest about who you are and where you come from. People are hungry to do business with authentic people. This only happens if you are self-aware, comfortable with yourself, confident and humble, and willing to bring your full self to your work relationships.

Practice cultural literacy. Identify your biases and prejudices; pay attention to your cultural lens and the cultures of others; and listen deeply to the cultural differences around you. This requires that we listen to what is going on above and below the line – the words that people are speaking and the feelings they are having under the surface.

Learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Working across cultures is by definition uncomfortable. Allow yourself to feel vulnerable and view that as perfectly human. View it as a great opportunity to understand yourself deeply and learn from people who may have vastly different experiences from you.

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