It’s the psychology, stupid!
– you could say after reading the World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society and Behavior, in which great attention was paid to the psychological and social aspects of human behaviour. One revealing response to it was: “Experts, policy makers and professionals should be fully aware that they, too, form part of social and cultural influences. Their way of thinking is, in fact, automatic”.
Who is pushing the buttons?
That is a reaction with a far-reaching impact. The real issue is that we, given the nature of that automatic character, seldom stop to think about it. Do we not all think of ourselves as being rational, genuine and analytical professionals? For part of the time, that is definitely the case, but we are running much more on auto-pilot than we realise or would care to admit. Our brains have been programmed so that we, in our daily lives, quickly and automatically react to familiar patterns: our intuitive mind. The other part, the reflective mind, just hobbles along somewhere behind. Hence, small things suddenly seem to be of intercultural importance, which can lead to some particularly surprising interpretations and maybe even a few interesting twists and turns along the way.
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Now, I randomly take a look at a typical day in the life of a German professional on a business trip to Ghana, who completely automatically:
- gets in to the front seat beside the taxi driver, chit-chats with him and, in doing so, asks a lot of questions
- waves to an old acquaintance, but tells the driver to keep going, because he is, after all, on the way to his next appointment
- informally addresses his older, Ghanian friend and colleague by his first name in the presence of others
- vents his opinions freely during a meeting
- after dinner with his new business partners in the evening, wants to return to the hotel early so he can check his e-mail.
And here is the intercultural harvest of the day:
- the driver asks himself, with fear and trepidation, what the underlying message was from this senior German representative, but it almost certainly will not be a positive one. “He does not sit in the back as he should, but instead, he sits beside me (causing me embarrassment, my status as a driver is at risk). He asks me too many questions (what does he want from me?)”.
- the acquaintance, who was only briefly waved at, wonders to himself what is happening: “We have not seen each other for ages, yet he just drives on! What have I done wrong? There must be something seriously wrong, or else he would have stopped”.
- the older, Ghanian compatriot, with whom he indeed has a good bond, takes offence at the fact that he was not addressed more respectfully, whilst in the company of his colleagues.
- the members of his new partner-organisation is somewhat shocked by his open and frank opinions, as they are only trying their best to successfully work together towards a better future, thus suddenly getting an emotional knock-back in their confidence, in him, and in their working relationship as a whole. “Ownership and collaboration were the starting points? His strong opinions probably represent the wider vision of the organisation back in Germany. How do we proceed now, if there is no room left for us, if the harmony between us has been so disrupted? Do they even trust us?”
- the aforementioned partners are unpleasantly surprised after their successful business dinner has finished, when they suddenly see he is already standing up to leave the table, as he clearly has no time to spare to stick around and work on their mutual relationship on a more sociable level. They get the feeling, “E-mails are more important than we are”, and so, their confidence takes another hit.
Social automatic pilot
The problem with our intuitive mind is that it is very rapid. Before you know it, you have already put your foot in it. Why? Because from a young age, you have primarily learned this behaviour subconsciously. It is a social automatic pilot that works on the basis of recognising patterns you have previously encountered. But take note: cultural patterns from your context, and not per definition from more unusual environments. And therein lies the issue: in a different cultural context, you actually have to think first before you act. Moreover, precisely about those minute details, because they can have totally unexpected and far-reaching consequences. Consequences including those like the perception of other people with regards to your intentions, what you think, what you want, how you view the situation and if you can be trusted. And not only you as an individual, but also, especially, if you are representing your organisation and even your country.
Your routines under a magnifying glass
Reflecting on your own auto-pilot is the only way to avoid the intercultural minefield. And that requires a ‘mindful’ approach: being in touch with yourself, and with the world around you. Carefully observing signals and actively listening are crucial to this process. Only then will you be able to respond quickly and adequately, possibly completely differently to how you otherwise may have reacted automatically. You will quickly see how interesting that becomes!
Blog © Yvonne van der Pol (2017) Reflections on Intercultural Craftsmanship
Her book Reflections on Intercultural Craftsmanship is available on Amazon
Yvonne van der Pol