Finding our way through the maze: A “Cultural Confidante” Guide
by Tasnim McCormick Benhalim
We’ve all been there. You’re in your first few days of a new job in an overseas assignment or you walk into a co-worker’s wedding celebration at a restaurant with food you’ve never seen before with guests dressed up in lavish ways that are all new to your experience – or a myriad other scenarios where we’re suddenly aware that our normal, expected, predictable experience does not apply here. For me, the famous scene from the movie, “The Wizard of Oz” comes to mind as Dorothy steps out into the new colorful world of Oz says to her small dog: “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
Whatever the situation, when we’re suddenly confronted with the new, unknown rules, a wave of confusion sweeps over us and we are suddenly unsure of what to do, how to act – and how to respond. To use the examples above: As a new manager, in a new country, in a new office: “What do I do? Do I shake hands? Do I introduce myself and explain what I do – then ask them what they do? How do I show respect to my superiors? How to I gather good feedback?” Or, back to the wedding party: “How do I greet people? Where should I sit? When should I sit? How do I manage the unusual-looking food in front of me?” Etc. etc. “Wow!”, you think, “ I could sure use a good friend to help walk me through this and explain things!”
And we’ve all been on the other side of this equation – when a brief, embarrassed gaffe occurs and the newcomer – unfamiliar with the “rules” of the new environment puts his or her foot in their mouth – with some misplaced protocol, a wrong word , a “weak” handshake – or any number of other signals that resonate as “odd” or “strange” or just plain “wrong” with the group. Perhaps we’ve even heard the quiet suggestion: “Someone should really tell him that that weak, wimpy handshake won’t work here!”– or “Someone should really tell her that it’s rude to slurp your pasta like that.” “Huh?” we think… “Seems like a nice person all right – but no way am I going to stick my neck out to let them know. It’s too embarrassing, too uncomfortable.” “I wouldn’t dream of offending anyone, and besides, they’ll probably figure it out. . . eventually.”
Cultural miscues/mistakes like these are often perceived as innocent and harmless but just as often are not perceived as innocent and harmless because the impact on others may be out of proportion to the “simple” gaffe. Some miscues have a big impact, others compound each other. In their most benign form, these cultural miscues are experienced by others as odd, a little strange, maybe even amusing. In their more serious form cultural miscues are perceived as being rude. And, in their most severe form, a newcomers’ cultural miscues can be perceived as intentionally showing disrespect, breaking trust and/or purposefully insulting and damaging.
A quick example will illustrate. In a recent cultural awareness training with a group of Texas business people I went around the table and introduced myself with a soft, gentle handshake and intermittent eye contact. I asked them to call out how they felt – i.e. what my type of introduction meant and communicated about me. “Weak!” “Indecisive!” “Probably not even trustworthy!” – were the quick responses. This was only an introduction. Imagine the impact of cultural miscues on making new friends, bonding with and motivating a team, demonstrating leadership or giving constructive criticism.
How then do we learn to navigate the different rules that define what is best, expected, appropriate, and true within the new culture? Certainly cross-cultural training and reading books can be very helpful. In addition, identifying one or more people as a cultural confidante, someone to “translate” the new cultural landscape, can go a long way to easing the transition while bolstering effectiveness in the new culture. “Cultural Confidante™” is the term I’ve coined to describe someone you identify in the new cultural setting, a person who seems to understand what’s going on, who seems respected and admired, and with whom you have rapport. Once you’ve identified a possible cultural confidante, here are five steps to building the relationship and gaining full benefit from the information you will receive.
1 – Express appreciation and respect for their culture. Find a good moment to take them aside and say: “I’m new here. I really admire your culture, and I want to understand it, be respectful and do well here.”
2 – Ask for their help. “I know that I’m going to make a lot of little and big mistakes. What I’m asking you to do is tell me when I get it wrong – even the small stuff. Tell me before I go into a situation, while I’m in it, and after. Just let me know, please. Your assistance will help make a big difference for me.”
3 – Keep your emotions in check; contain your surprise. Often when we learn how something is done differently in a new culture, our first reaction is, “What?!! Really?!!” So, when your cultural confidante does what you’ve asked and tells you about your slip-ups, don’t react emotionally – thank them, so they keep coming back. Keep your emotions in check, absorb what they say, remember it’s not personal, and thank them sincerely for letting you know. Your learning curve will go up fast. Asking for help and continuing to be open to that help is the key to your success.
4 – Be an eternal student. Keep a small notebook and pen handy. If you think you’re going to forget a word, a phrase, what to do in any particular situation, write it down in a notebook and continue to refer to it. It will prevent you from forgetting any of the wisdom coming your way.
5 – Follow your heartfelt good intentions. No matter how or where we travel, how ever different the cultural expressions we encounter across this great world of ours, people everywhere in every place, love their families and friends, value respect, hospitality and generosity and seek work that is beneficial for a brighter future. So, in the end, through the many veils of culture that can separate, confuse and alienate us from one another, a heartfelt desire to appreciate and understand is always welcome. The human heart is the “trump card” that ultimately can transcend the many different rules our various cultures use to negotiate the game of life.