We’ve been talking the past few weeks about what types of people make the best zookeepers in a foreign culture.

Zookeepers are the intermediaries between you and the new culture. They can help you understand the nuances of the culture’s values, norms, and behaviors and provide you with metaphors or analogies to serve as mental models for better understanding.

While we’ve said that Third Culture Kids are amongst the best zookeepers due to their experience with multiple cultures from a young age, you unfortunately might not have any TCK connections.

So, who else might be a good zookeeper?

Assistants Assisting Cultural Learning

Don’t overlook your assistant as a teacher.

Executives often work closely with their assistants and, in a foreign culture, these assistants have the benefit of understanding their own society and having had previous experience working with foreign managers.

Upon arrival to Spain, I sought help in adapting to the local culture from my assistant.

She offered me daily cultural advice during a particularly difficult time for the company.

For instance, when my third female employee started crying in my office, I grew worried about my approach and wondered if there was something I could do differently.

When I asked my assistant if she had some insight, she told me, “That’s how it works in Madrid. Just keep Kleenex on your desk, so you can offer it to your employee if she starts crying. But keep talking to her rationally.”

I followed her advice and was able to continue making tough decisions without worrying about cultural missteps.

Advice & Explanations

Not only did my assistant offer advice, she offered an explanation for various aspects of her culture that did not gel with mine.

Regarding the tears, my assistant told me Spanish culture is more emotive and tolerant of crying at work than Swiss culture.

As exemplified by their expressive language, the Spanish are an emotive people.

My assistant/zookeeper also gave me insight into:

  • How to greet business clients
  • How and when to celebrate births/birthdays
  • How to/how not to dress
  • And, most importantly, that I should NEVER use the copy machine myself, as this is not a good look for a boss in Spain

The power distance index developed by Geert Hofstede puts Spain in the middle, while Switzerland is on the lower end. 

This means that Spain prefers a stronger power dynamic amongst its leaders, while Switzerland prefers a flatter hierarchy.

By suggesting changes in my behavior, my assistant/zookeeper provided me with concrete measures that would help me adapt to abstract cultural dimensions like power distance.

Zookeepers are International

The best zookeepers are not easy to find. 

And the monkey – YOU – must also be malleable to training. You must be open to criticism, both passive and active.

Friendship and trust are key to the relationship, as is some type of international background in regards to the zookeeper – whether they’ve simply worked with many a foreigner before or have themselves lived in different cultures.

Whatever the case, once you find yourself a good zookeeper, you’ll be good as gold.

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