What happens when you wade into the waters of a new culture, one where the waves are warmer or colder, one where the fish are either all the same size and shade of neon, or where there are many different sizes, shapes, colors, and species? How would you react to the change in the tide?
You’d likely feel like a fish out of water.
When we’re put into an environment that’s unlike our own, it sets off our spidey-senses. Suddenly, our awareness is heightened to everything that’s going on around us, because it’s all just too different. And when something is a tiny bit off, it feels uncanny.
This can make us uncertain of our environment and uncomfortable in our own skin. Depending on the type of person you are – whether you’re adaptable or one who rarely leaves his/her indentation on the couch – the distinct awareness of all that is different may trickle in, little by little, or it may blast you with immediate discomfort and leave you soaking in anxiety.
Yes, living and managing in a foreign culture can be overwhelming. But it’s not impossible, even for those who live for their comfort zone.
The key is to use your spidey senses for good. Being culturally aware of your surroundings and behavior can help you limit – or even eliminate – the “monkey moments” you may encounter.
What’s a monkey moment?
Remember last week, when I said that you are the monkey in the zoo? Well, a “monkey moment” is when your monkey-ness is made clear and apparent to your host culture.
Your hosts are the spectators, remember; they’re the normal ones, the humans. So they’re watching and waiting for you to make a mistake, to behave like a monkey. They expect it from you. The moment you drop the ball, forget to be culturally aware, and start to fling your poo – that’s when they’ll see you for what you are.
While this isn’t to say you must abandon your culture, else your hosts won’t accept you, this is to say that being culturally aware will make you a more effective leader and integrator in a foreign culture.
Making Your Awareness Actionable
When you first arrive to your host country, you will see yourself as normal and the environment/the “other” as strange. This is instinctive. But you must remember: what seems unfamiliar is not necessarily unnatural.
Knowing this will help you develop cultural sensitivity, which you’ll need in order to make your awareness actionable. I’ll discuss how to do that in next week’s blog.