Mirror Image: Know Your Own Culture to Understand Others

Mirror Image: Know Your Own Culture to Understand Others

Those who work or live around people from other cultures understand the importance of learning about the differences surrounding them. What is often neglected, however, is the equal importance of knowing one's own culture, values and beliefs in order to relate more effectively across cultural lines.

Awareness of our own culture is important, because it can keep us from projecting our values onto others. By projecting, I mean the universal tendency to think other people are doing something for the same reasons we would. This can happen when we are unaware of the values that drive us and unable to distinguish them from those held by other cultures.

We are like a fish in a fish bowl. The fish swims inside the bowl surrounded by water and glass, but unaware of their presence. Most important, the fish does not realize these substances alter its view of the outside world. Our culture is like that water and glass. We see the world through a distorting screen created by our deeply held, often subconscious, values and beliefs.

Mainstream American culture, for example, respects direct eye contact. Those born and raised in this culture assume people who do not look us in the eye are dishonest, weak and evasive. By contrast, most Asian cultures teach that avoiding eye contact is respectful and considerate. This means an American employer is apt to interpret an Asian-born applicant's lowered eyes as a sign of dishonesty, when he is merely showing respect for the interviewer.

Know Your Own Cultural Values

The first step toward solving this problem is obvious: Learn as much about other cultures as you can. The second step is too often forgotten: Understand your own assumptions about body language, communication style or other cultural characteristics that impact your impression of the outside world. This may seem easy, but it is not. Our own culture is such a part of us that -- like the water surrounding the fish -- we are unaware of its existence. Some of us go so far as to think of our own culture as human nature and, to make matters worse, as one to which all should conform.

Learn from Observation and Interaction

So if knowing one's own culture is not automatic, how can we achieve this knowledge? The answer lies in exposure and observation. First, be around other cultures. The next step is impossible without the opportunity to interact with those who are different from you. Second, when around people from different cultures, watch for three things: moments of tension, misunderstanding and anger.

When one of these happens, don't panic. Observe yourself and your culture. What did you do just before the tension, misunderstanding or anger arose? That act is part of your culture and was probably a factor in the moment's dynamic. What you did was not necessarily wrong, but be aware it grew out of your culturally conditioned values and behaviors. Also, ask yourself: "What assumption was I making about the situation before the negativity started?" Those assumptions, like your behavior, grew out of your culture. Examining them will help awaken the cultural self-awareness that is so important in making cross-cultural relationships work. Yes, knowledge of other cultures is important, but looking at ourselves can teach us as much about cross-cultural understanding as all the anthropology books in the world.