How to overcome cultural mishaps with a good laugh about yourself
Academy reflection on intercultural communication with Paule Wendelberger. On International Women’s Day, our topic is cultural diversity and our speaker very much reminds one of Erykah Badu. She introduces herself by saying: “I’m not used to hearing my own voice”…
Paule doesn’t have to fight to gain credibility when talking about diversity. She is a curious spirit, reading everything about intercultural encounters and also experiencing it first hand. Paule tells us about when she first arrived in Morocco. She knew what it was like to be a foreigner: “It started with the clothes I wore… and ended with everything I was, that I smoked, how I ate - everything.”
“Sometimes going to the opposite side of the world helps you see that things you state as obvious are actually not that obvious elsewhere.”
Backing up her claims with numbers, Paule says “70% of failures in companies happen due to cultural differences” and provided us with examples for these intercultural mishaps. Together, we analyzed some adverts. There was the Toyota MR2 that didn’t sell so well in France as it refers to the french word merde. Or the condom advert entitled “don’t mess with Mao”, that really enraged some people in China.
It’s obvious why it’s important to work on intercultural mishaps. It can harm a company’s image if not. These mishaps can also reduce one’s sense of self-worth, damage career prospects, affect relationships (divorces +40%) and give future expatriates a harder time integrating. “When work is not done well, 15% is due to technical reasons but 85% to interpersonal ones!”
So how can we work on those mishaps?
By being adaptable, having a non-judgmental attitude and “a sense of humor goes a long way”, Paule recommends!
“I laugh at myself all the time”
The acceptance of failure, a lower goal orientation and warmth in human relationships also help us to overcome mishaps. “We need a certain degree of empathy, not sympathy” Paule claims.
And how do I become inter-culturally competent?
Recognize yourself! Recognize your culture too. Ask yourself: how does my culture define things like “time” or “beauty”? Then recognize other cultures and acknowledge the differences.
“We are living in our own fishbowl”
So, what is culture? Paule gets the audience involved to help answer this broad question.
Is it German culture that people “get angry when you don’t look them straight in the eye while saying cheers?”
To find out what we have in common and the unwritten “rules” that define our lives and how we raise our children confronts us with the Iceberg logic of culture: We only see the obvious concepts of our culture, but the hidden parts are even bigger.
There are actually 5 dimensions of culture.
The power distance is the distance between me and my boss in different cultures. The uncertainty avoidance: Who is a risk taker? The individualistic degree when making decisions, the role-equality between men and women and the difference in long term or short term orientation. All this defines our cultural differences or things we have in common. When we understand each other it prevents us from building up emotional, social and mental barriers based on misunderstandings when communication breaks down and have stronger stereotypes.
To sum up, culture could be defined as the HOW and the WHY of the functioning of the world! It is a reaction to nature.
In Paule’s words “Embrace the difference and stay hungry!”
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