Dianne Hofner Saphiere (Cultural Detectives) pointed me to a recently published article about how linguistic dexterity is connected with cognitive development and vice versa: No one could see the color blue until modern times by Kevin Loria. The premise of the article directly ties into my own observation that people tend to focus on the familiar and often stop short of taking a closer look and exploring other possible meanings or interpretations. Selective seeing and (subconscious) selective processing of information can thereby easily lead to incomplete or even incorrect conclusions.
What other things, connections, concepts may we be unaware of because we lack the words to describe them or because we have not learned how to decode them? When clients first enter a coaching relationship their bodies are often exhibiting symptoms that are rooted in interpersonal experiences. Tight muscles, clenched jaws, headaches, sweating. The person may even have a “gut feeling” that something is wrong but is lacking the words to describe it. An experienced coach will ask questions, invite explorations and may offer a range of vocabulary to become more and more specific in the descriptions of symptoms, experiences, and stories. With an expanded range of words to explore emotions comes progress and the ability to “see” dynamic relationships and dependencies.
Here are some questions to think about as we encounter unfamiliar people in new settings. How do we recognize invitations to enter into relationships? How do we discern what type of relationship is desired? How can you predict behavior across cultures if the behavior is grounded in concepts that you may be utterly unfamiliar with? How does that relate to global leadership? All these questions ultimately point to the importance of learning the proper tools and expressions to engage in effective intercultural communication.
Why the memory of the Holocaust is a gift for German culture. (Please click on the link to a very pointed article written by Christian Höfele)
I wholeheartedly share Christian Höfele’s sentiments.
The first time I walked through the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., I cried and I would refuse to speak to my companion inside the museum, fearing that my German accent would be detected and I felt so deeply ashamed at that moment. Years later, I have the gained confidence to “own” that part of my heritage and to talk to my children about what it must have been like for their great-grandparents to live in and through that dark part of history.
Today, I feel the need to draw comparisons between different forms of persecution and scapegoating of visually and ideologically identifiable groups of people and to speak up against generalizations, against oversimplifications and the vilifying of cultural groups and beliefs. If history is bound to repeat itself due to certain limitations of the human nature, then we are all called to remember and be aware of those dark human forces that are rooted in fear and greed, and to do everything we can to prevent similar future atrocities.
Cultural Lenses Impact Our Meaning-Making: For my American and North-Western hemisphere-inspired audience: What do you see at first glance in the image to the left?
Oft cited interculturalist Geert Hofstede poses that “every person carries within him or herself patterns of thinking, feeling and potential acting which were learned throughout their lifetime … As soon as certain patterns of thinking, feeling and acting have established themselves within a person’s mind, (s)he must unlearn these first before being able to learn something different, and unlearning is more difficult than learning for the first time” (2010).
Our mind indeed uses learned patterns, past experiences and familiar context to obtain information and glean meaning from the world around us. These patterns allow us to easily interpret and respond to images and scenarios presented to us. The outline of the first image – especially in the wintertime – most likely will remind many Northern Americans of a snowman – some may even know it by name: Frosty.
When I traveled in Burundi recently, a curious, obviously home-made craft was dancing on the dash board of our driver’s car. It took me a moment and then I realized that I was looking at an “African
Snow Man”. Maybe somehow a craft kit from the Northern hemisphere had made its way into an African school and when asked to color the shape, the child used his imagination that was informed by local context, thus creating the image of an African wearing a pink sweater and waving a blue rag.
Contextual sense-making in its purest and cutest expression. It made me wonder, how often we see outlines and then quickly color them in with what we see based on the patterns in our mind created by the culture that plays the most prominent part in our lives. The trick to cultural dexterity then is not necessarily to unlearn what we know but to ask ourselves:”What else is there to see and what other possible interpretations of this reality might someone else think of?”
What have you encountered that involved looking at the same thing through a different cultural and different context-based lens and thus triggered different interpretations?
An amazing whirlwind trip with just 7 days on the ground in Burundi! We encountered warm-hearted people living in the most humble circumstances. We witnessed practical development work in action – transforming lives and communities. We saw the donations that were raised through Five Talents International being multiplied ten-fold, enabling the poorest of the poor to learn to read, count, and start their own micro businesses. The women (and a few men) whom me met through the program radiated the dignity and confidence that come with such hard-earned accomplishments.
Five Talents International is currently serving 18,000 Burundians in 750 Savings Groups, partnering with Mothers’ Union (the Anglican Church’s ministry to women). It was so heart-warming to hear women tell about the impact on their families: improved health because they can purchase nutritious food or install a new roof; or being able to buy school uniforms so their children can attend school.
Our team visited 3 savings groups (below left) in villages to the south and north of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi and our home base for this trip. The groups welcomed us in modest church buildings, which also function as the village social hub. We observed their weekly meetings and after that members shared how their lives have changed since they completed a literacy and numeracy program and are now able operate their own businesses with the support of the savings groups. We witnessed firsthand what a loan of $18 to $40 can accomplish in a country where 90% of the population depends on subsistence farming to meet their daily food needs, where illiteracy is still widespread at 70% and where most people live on one meal per day.
A small glimpse of Archbishop Ntahoturi’s visionary leadership and practical approach to put Christian values in action that was evident in his meeting with our delegation was inspiring. We participated in two days of seminars with 24 Savings Group Trainers, and were impressed by the sacrifice and devotion of the women who manage and implement this program.
Burundi has garnered a special place in my heart and as I process my fresh impressions over the next weeks, I will tease out what it will mean for me professionally and personally as I am returning to my life in America. I hope to see the people I have met again and I hope that together we can find ways to lift the burden of poverty in a way that will be authentic to local culture and sustainable for future generations.
Many of my business partners and friends know that for the past few years I have been trying to find a way to apply my entrepreneurial and business development skills in a meaningful way and to do my share to improve a small corner of this beautiful world. As part of my degree work at George Mason University, I have studied the evidence of the positive impact of micro finance loans in the poorest communities around the globe and subsequently, I have supported a number of non-profit organizations in their fight against poverty and suppression in under-developed countries over the years. I have now been given the unique opportunity to examine non-governmental agency work and micro finance programs up close and personal during a Vision Trip to Burundi from September 16-26, 2014 with Five Talents.
Five Talents is a non-denominational Christian faith-based non-profit organization. Their mission is to fight poverty, create jobs, and transform lives in the poorest countries of the world (www.fivetalents.org). My task during this trip will be to pay attention to the cultural aspects of the organization’s work and to journal the team’s experiences. We will meet with program participants and community leaders in different parts of Burundi to document tangible examples of how the program has impacted local communities, and to investigate what aspects of the program work well and what can be improved.
I would deeply appreciate your support for this trip. The team asks for prayers for safety and protection, team-building, and receptivity for both us and the entrepreneurs about what we need to learn. Financially, each team member needs to raise $3500 for airfare, meals, and accommodations, teaching supplies, and participant materials for the entrepreneurs. While I am in the fortunate position to be able to fund my own travel expenses, I would very much like to support the organization and their work in Burundi in a long-lasting way. Therefore, I am looking for partners in raising funds for the program.
To double the impact of donations, Butler Communications will match all donations to support this program dollar for dollar!
A $250 gift will turn into $500, and we will be half-way to starting a new savings group in a village in Burundi!
Together, we can change lives in Burundi in a very meaningful way:
• $1000 is the seed money necessary to start a savings group in a village with roughly 25 people in a group.
• The average loan is $56. With a starting capital of $56, a micro-entrepreneur can build a business to provide food for his/her family and pay for school uniforms.
• Burundi is the 5th poorest country in the world.
• Right now, over 17,000 individuals are enrolled in the program in Burundi. Times 7, that equals 119,000 people.
• There are more than 50,000 individuals waiting to join. The only thing necessary to get them started: financial resources!
• 78% of the beneficiaries are women, who are statistically more likely to reinvest their earnings into their families and the education of their children.
• The repayment rate of the program is 94% – an incredible success and proof that the program works!
Please consider making a one-time tax-deductible donation or enrolling for recurring gift giving. The online donation process is easy and secure: https://donate.fivetalents.org/
In order to enable me to match donations, please select “Burundi” under the designation and leave your name and a personal message for me in the comment box. If you would like to know more about Five Talents or about Burundi, just let me know! I will be happy to tell you more about our trip before we leave and I will in any case provide you with a report about the trip and what we learned when I get back.
Many thanks for your support!
“Culture is manifested in shared, unspoken assumptions, values, and beliefs of a group of people resulting in characteristic behavior.” Craig Storti
While there are many popular and academic definitions of culture, I particularly like Craig Storti’s version because it is very flexible and can be applied to any situation where different cultures meet well beyond the realm of international relations. It encompasses subgroups like corporate culture, town culture, team culture, family culture, partnership culture. It thus underlines the importance of context when looking at interactions between different groups.
The unspoken assumptions, unreflected values and beliefs that prompt a person’s behavior, decisions, and interpretations of others are at the heart of many misunderstandings, interpersonal issues, and conflict. Intergenerational conflicts, gender conflicts, mergers and acquisitions issues, just to name some examples, can be only be adequately addressed if the respective unspoken assumptions and differences in values and beliefs are identified, named and placed in relation to each other without judgment. In that respect, an intercultural consultant is not unlike a therapist in that he attempts to uncover hidden relationship dynamics to allow the players to make informed decisions and to be aware of the potential consequences of their actions. The objective is to move beyond a conflict and apply different decision making tools depending on the context of a situation and to nuance one’s behavior based on what we know about ourselves and the other. The ultimate goals is to find enrichment in differences and appreciation for different perspectives without the need to prove one right and one wrong.
Since my blog is new and my consulting business is generating a lot of questions with new business contacts and even friends, I will take today’s short posting to explain what intercultural experiences mean to me and why it is more than an interesting business opportunity to me.
I moved to the United States 23 years ago and this October, I will be able to celebrate “cultural exposure equilibrium” if there is such a thing as I will have spent equal number of years of my life in Germany as in the United States. But wait, would not formative childhood years carry double the weight resulting a much more pronounce impact on my social psyche than young adulthood years and professional life? Or did my college education in the United States leave a deeper mark on my personal and professional development than years spent at the Leibniz Gymnasium and in vocational training programs in Wiesbaden? How do you reconcile my German personality traits with the American persona that I morphed into over the years?
My husband learned especially in the early years of our married life to tread gingerly around me the first couple of days after my return from a homeland visit. I was usually “not myself”, a bit melancholy and irritable and I explained that I felt that way because it took much longer for my mind and soul to travel back to the states than my body. Even though I enjoyed my life in Northern Virginia, I still ached a little each time when I left familiar ground, old friends and family members behind.
Years of training have helped me to manage my instant blunt unsolicited feedback on anything going on around me. I have learned the American art of small talk and there is something comforting about chatting with grocery store cashier staff about the weather and exchanging smiles with complete strangers. Traveling back to Germany on my annual trip to see family and connect with clients, I sometimes have to remind myself that I need to bag my own groceries at the supermarket and to NOT cross the pedestrian crosswalk when there is no car in sight but the pedestrian light is red. Little things that nevertheless are an indicator how adaptation to the behavior to a particular environment stays with us and will guide our action when we don’t actively engage our cognitive side of our brain.
Through conversations with “transplants” from countries outside of the U.S., studies, research, observations and a keen interest in how others are dealing with similar split-cultural personality syndromes, I learned that my experiences were not quite as unique as they may have felt at times and that it takes intentional exploration and a deeper understanding of self in comparison with the values and behavioral patterns of others to truly make sense of different cultures and different approaches to what life throws our way.
Thus began my personal and ultimately my professional quest to foster understanding and an authentic appreciation for “the other”, to explore my roots and those of others, so tease out nuances from stereotypes, to enjoy the unexpected and to build relationships across cultural divides.
For the professional world that means intentionally applying new meeting techniques to ensure that different perspectives can be explored, to allow different learning and communication styles to develop and contribute to projects and objectives. Creating team work that accounts for different cultural preferences and a mindful interaction between staff, management, and with customers.
But it all starts with a better understanding of one’s own culture to recognize our own decision making and value assigning patterns as a basis for dimensional comparison with others.