Slipping into another’s skin comes easier to some than others.
Multicultural environments prepare those who grow up in them to imagine how a person from a different background thinks and feels, imagine another’s experience in this world.
In that person’s experience, multiple worlds exist, so slipping fluidly from one perspective and reality to another is often more familiar; it comes naturally.
But for those of us who live in a monocultural environment – that is a single, homogeneous culture – the change in perspective is not innate.
Despite having no experience or natural instinct to shift perspectives, there is a simple way to practice.
Ask The Question: How Would I Feel If…?
A Walmart CEO is heading up a branch in Germany.
He digs his feet in, declaring English the company language there and forcing his German staff to communicate only in English. He refuses to learn a lick of German.
If this Walmart CEO had taken a moment to ask himself, “How would I feel if the tables were turned?” he might experience a shift in perspective that would reverse this decision.
If he had imagined for a moment a German CEO at BMW in New York forcing his employees to speak German, declaring it the official language of BMW, he might have seen how flat-footed such a decision is.
How would American employees react? How would YOU react?
Asking the simple question, “How would I feel if a foreigner was doing this in my culture/country?” allows the shift in perspective you need to see your own obvious cultural blunders (i.e. “monkey moments“).
You can also take this view when accommodating foreigners in your own country.
For instance, if you have a visiting colleague from Japan and you know something of the Japanese culture, you probably understand that physical contact – and especially touching of the face – is considered intimate and taboo in Japanese culture.
Although it’s part of your own culture and this visitor is in your country, you might consider, “How would I feel…?” And instead of going in for a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or even a handshake, as are customary greetings in many cultures, you might offer your visiting colleague a bow. Doing so is respectful and would make this colleague that much more comfortable and at home in your country.
While your colleague may try to adapt to their host country and greet you as is customary in your culture, they will likely appreciate the empathetic gesture that you’ve extended.
Tommy Thompson & Krushchev
A little understanding and shoe-shifting go a long way in cross-cultural relations.
In politics, you might call it diplomacy, which is defined as:
“the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way.”
An example of this by Psychologist J. E. Sherman in Psychology Today illustrates a rather extreme example of how shifting perspectives can truly facilitate cross-cultural relations – and even save the world from war.
Sherman explains that missiles had been installed by the Soviets 225 miles off the Florida coast in Cuba during the Cold War.
President Kennedy had to show a strong front. He was leaning toward an airstrike, which would, of course, have escalated the situation, but he thought he was boxed in.
However, level-headed senior foreign service officer Tommy Thompson offered some keen advice.
Having lived with Soviet Premier Khrushchev, Thompson could adopt his perspective, and he convinced Kennedy to go for a softer front: to make Khrushchev an offer that there would be no U.S. retaliation if the Soviets pulled out.
Of course, we all know the result: Khrushchev took the offer, and the world was saved from nuclear war.
“Thompson, a competent shoe-shifter put himself in Khrushchev’s shoes. He recognized that Khrushchev wasn’t expecting the US to find out about the missiles so early and hadn’t foreseen the potential for direct confrontation. He would be looking for a way to save face, to claim that he had saved Cuba from attack.”
You, too, can be a competent shoe-shifter like Tommy Thompson.
All it takes is to ask yourself what your own feelings/reactions might be if the shoe was on the other foot.
The conscious process of shoe-shifting allows you to delve into thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in another’s perspective.
In the end, while practicing empathy and active tolerance, you gain insight into individuals, differing perspectives, and foreign cultures.