A lot of cultural training is great to teach you some ins and outs of local customs — don’t make this gesture, don’t show the soles of your feet, don’t insult people by doing X, Y, Z, eat with this hand, not that one… and the list goes on.

It’s quite impossible to keep track of every do and don’t for all the cultures we visit or work with. It can get confusing and in the end you may even give up trying, or just get to the point of not caring any more — which can be a dangerous place if you want to succeed interculturally.

So, what’s the trick?

Cultures have their ways of doing things for a reason. It’s not just because they’re deciding to be difficult or complicated. It’s just the way that they have learned in their families, villages, schools and countries. But their behaviours are deeply rooted in their values, norms, beliefs (Edward Hall’s Iceberg Analogy YouTube), these are the things that it is worth time trying to explore. As you understand more what’s at the root, the easier it becomes to safely navigate the differences — even if you make a mistake.

Part of one of the intercultural training modules of the Knowledgeworkx ICI certification is called “Becoming a cultural learner” … and is in contrast with the idea of what is a cultural critic. Even if/when you make an intercultural mistake, you are easily forgiven if people perceive you as a cultural learner — curious about them, wanting to know more about their customs.

Watch this video — In this 1992 movie with Tom Selleck as Mr Baseball. The character is eating a meal with a Japanese family. Everyone is happily slurping away at their noodles, but this seems to have a problem with this. On the surface level we can see the behaviour of each culture. But the issue isn’t the action — it’s the values and norms which underly the behaviours. For some cultures slurping is considered bad manners, rude, bad etiquette. However, in other cultures it is considered polite, good etiquette. It is not the behaviour that causes culture shock, it is what lies beneath the surface.

It is also quite obvious by the disapproving looks from his hosts, that Mr Selleck is upsetting those around him with his rude behaviour and bad table manners. But we can see that the problem here is with his attitude — he is stepping on the host culture. He shows not desire to learn or to understand his host culture — if he did, his “bad behaviour” would be forgiven as ignorance and his hosts probably less antagonistic towards him.

This is a great example — there are so many other real life examples of this. I have been embarrassed when travelling with groups at how people disrespect the host culture! I once had a very interesting conversation with a muslim tour guide about the reason she dressed a certain way and covered her head. Would she do the same if she were living in the West, I asked. She was not offended because she picked up on my honest curiosity. People are very open if they perceive that you are interested in knowing about them and their way of life. This is being a cultural learner. I could give many examples of cultural critics, but you get the point, I’m sure.

So, what’s behaviours do you find puzzling in the context you are living / working in? How can you get below the surface and learn the reasons why people do certain things? Once you get below the surface, how does that change your perspective?