The Zookeeper: Your Intermediary in a Foreign Culture 

As a foreigner in another culture, we are caged monkeys in a zoo.

This is a common theme in my blog and particularly in my book, I am the Monkey.

As monkeys in the zoo, we look outside our habitats and wonder at the strange animals called “humans” – i.e. the local people whose culture we’re living in.

Why are they staring at us all the live-long day?

The noises they make are odd. The fur they wear is multicolored. Their actions are diabolical.

But of all the humans who gather around our cage, there is one that we can identify with: the Zookeeper.

How Zookeepers Behave

Unlike the human spectators who throw peanuts at you, the zookeeper gives you real food.

More than that, she knows when you’re hungry.

Instead of making strange noises and pulling faces at you, she approaches you normally, she moves naturally.

As a monkey, you don’t fear the Zookeeper, because the Zookeeper doesn’t cause confusion.

Though she is not a monkey, she understands monkeys, and you understand her.

This is the type of person you need when integrating into a foreign culture: a local who understands you and who you understand too.

You may not speak the same mother tongue, but you are still able to communicate well enough to get by.

Cultural Food

The Zookeeper can feed you the cultural food you need to help understand their culture.

Good zookeepers understand both cultures well enough to hash out any differences and help explain their own culture in a way to which you can relate.

Knowing both monkeys and humans allows the Zookeeper to build bridges, providing explanations for behaviors and mental models to aid understanding.

Zookeepers can tell the humans, “You’re making too much noise and scaring the monkeys.”

They can tell the monkeys, “The humans don’t mean to alarm you; they’re just excited to meet you.”

They can tell the humans, “Don’t feed them; they just ate.”

They can tell the monkeys, “I know you’re not hungry but feeding guests is part of the human culture.”

Through understanding and effective communication, the Zookeeper is the intermediary between the two worlds, aiding both the monkey’s integration and the humans’ ability to help this foreigner integrate.

Next week, we’ll look at an example of a genuine zookeeper in action. 

Sharing Culture: Why Local Friends Are Important to Foreign Managers

You work for an international company that relocates you to Beijing, China.

Having never been to China and knowing little about the culture, you feel like a fish out of water.

Nothing is familiar to you; the lay of the land, the crowds, the language on street signs.

You think of home – your family/friends, your favorite haunts, your favorite foods – and you immediately feel homesick.

But you know your success in this foreign country depends on building your own home here, even if it’s temporary. 

It depends on your ability to integrate.

And to aid that integration, you begin your friend-finding mission.

Expat Community

The first people you meet are, of course, your colleagues, some of whom are expats from your own country.

You join them for trivia night at a bar that caters to foreigners, and they introduce you to the broader expat community.

This community makes you feel immediately comfortable. 

They laugh at your jokes, understand your references – they understand YOU.

The group is familiar. It’s home. 

It’s easy to choose comfort and familiarity over differences that may generate potential conflict.

With people of your own culture, you’re not navigating a cross-cultural minefield; you generally know where the mines are and you avoid them.

But if you want to truly integrate into a foreign culture, you cannot self-segregate, sticking to your own flock.

You must migrate into unknown territories.

Cross-cultural Friendships Over Comfort

This is not to say you shouldn’t make expat friends.

In fact, these friendships often evolve into lifelong friendships and are also helpful to your cultural integration.

But when you avoid making local friends altogether, you’re losing out on an important part of living in a foreign culture: sharing.

Sharing culture not only allows you to better understand your employees and direct reports, as you better understand the culture you’re managing in; it also shows them that you care.

Without respect and a genuine interest in the culture and its people, you won’t connect with your local colleagues and employees. 

They will note that you haven’t sought out any significant cultural experiences in your new home.

They will note that you don’t bother with the language, the customs, or anything else.

They will note that you stick to your own flock and don’t show interest in making friends or sharing culture with the locals.

As with anything, you’ll only get out of your experience abroad what you make of it.

You can choose to stay in your bubble and never expand your comfort zone.

Or you can choose to share in a new culture, meet new people, appreciate new ideas and traditions, and ultimately broaden your horizons.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three types of expatriates, and you can decide which category you want to fall into.

Learning a Culture: From Scholastic Learning to Experiential Learning

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how important learning the language, religion, and history of your host culture is.

This conscious, and often scholastic, learning process requires time, energy, and discipline in ways that may make you feel like you’re back at school.

It can oftentimes be a tough process, requiring many studious hours logged. After all, you’re investing in educating yourself about an entire culture.

But don’t worry, not all cultural learning will require you to dust off the books. Some of it – and some might say the most important part of it – is experiential.

Learning Through Sharing

You are not going to learn the power and emotion of Spanish flamenco watching it on YouTube.

You are not going to learn the colloquial idioms of Portuguese by memorizing by rote.

You are not going to learn how to make Italian pasta by hand without getting your hands dirty (or flour-y).

Learning culture is an experiential process and, without learning by sharing, you’ll be missing out on all the warmth of learning culture.

Cultures are not two-dimensional. They are living and breathing; they must be experienced in-the-round.

Immersion for Integration

“Instead of having 100 rubles, it’s better to have 100 friends.”

That’s what a Russian proverb says.

And foreign friends will be so much more valuable to you than rubles, as they will be able to show you their cultural behaviors, tell you their history, and teach you their traditions better than any book can.

Making friends is an investment in your cultural integration, as it allows immersion learning.

This type of learning involves sharing time and food and language with local friends.

Whether you’re an expatriate living in your host country or an international manager traveling abroad often, local friends will make learning fun rather than book work.

Not only will local friends make you culturally savvy, but they’re likely to expose you to local entertainment and opportunities that you wouldn’t have been privy to on your own.

And, even better, you’ll build life-long relationships in the process.

The Colonial Superiority Complex: Why Adapting to Another Culture is a Struggle for The West

Do you easily adapt to another culture? Do you find value in another’s values and seek to understand norms and behaviors?

For Westerners, in particular, this step in cultural integration is difficult.

And its difficulty has its roots in history.

The Colonial Superiority Complex

Samuel P. Huntington, American political scientist and former director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, considers two opposing civilizations as particularly dangerous: the Muslim world and Western civilization.

Why did he consider these two civilizations to be dangerous?

1) Their “superiority complex” in relation to other cultures

2) Their willingness to enforce their values and norms on others

In this case, we’re defining “civilization” as a group of cultures that share history and values.

In his groundbreaking book, The Clash of Civilization, he writes, 

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. […] The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” 

Published in the nineties, a number of Huntington’s predictions unfolded in reality. These two civilizations did indeed come to a head in many conflicts along the “fault lines” and continue to today.

Both Muslim civilization and Western civilization have a history of invading other cultures and universally imposing their rule of law and way of life through violence.

While all civilizations enter into war for access to resources, some in history have notably allowed the local culture to remain without much or any interference.

Others, however, attempt to convert cultures to their own way of life, often buoyed by religion.

Consider this: if your belonging to a civilization is based on race (for instance, Chinese or Slavic civilizations), the culture cannot expand.

However, if belonging is built on behavior, values, and norms, then yes, conquered people can adapt to the lifestyle.

European Colonialism in Africa

A vivid illustration of this lies in Africa.

20th century European colonialism exploited the continent both economically and culturally.

Schools, universities, and churches were built, so Western values and norms could be exported.

The political leaders in the West at that time viewed their culture as superior, so imposing it on others came with the territory.

However, as failed attempts at implementing working democracies in North Africa have shown, an external force imposing culture in this fashion does not work and instead results in civil war and failed states (e.g. Libya, Syria).

Although that’s not to say democracy will never work in other countries, a shift from ethnic culture to national culture is required, and such a shift in mentality takes willingness and time.

The West didn’t allow either.

China in Africa

On the other hand, there’s China.

Without anyone noticing, China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner, with more than $200 billion in annual goods exchanged.

During the first decade of the 21st century, a million Chinese expats have moved to Africa, largely as traders and laborers.

But the Chinese approach is different than Western colonialism. No attempts have been made by China to promote their culture on the continent.

There are no Chinese missionaries, think tanks, schools, or cultural centers. China is there purely for economic benefit; not to globally expand their culture and civilization.

African culture and political systems are left untouched by their largest trading partner.

This is the difference in approach. And this historical difference is why those from Western cultures find learning and adapting to another culture to be difficult.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to overcome that.

Step 2 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Accepting in Action

There are things about foreign cultures you won’t be able to accept. As we covered last week, behaviors or beliefs that cross a moral or ethical line are the most difficult aspects of a culture to embrace.

That’s where YOU draw the line.

But in order to be successful across cultures, one must integrate as much as possible. To an extent, you must accept the culture as it is. This means you shouldn’t judge the local culture, you should accept ambiguity, you should actively tolerate, and you should explain your monkey moments.

Four Key Steps to Acceptance

  1. Don’t Judge – Be “culture-neutral.” Don’t view differences as good or bad. Viewing a culture as “different” instead of “wrong” will allow you to warm up to their ways. Finding fault in another is often due to fear that you are the one who’s wrong. As Charlyne Blatcher Martin writes for global business protocol, “It is safe to say that our fear or insecurity is often the breeding ground for casting a suspicious eye at ‘the foreigner.’”
  2. Accept Ambiguity – You’ll find that many processes and behaviors of other cultures are ambiguous to you. You must relinquish control and accept this ambiguity. Doing so will allow room for fresh connections to be made. You’ll see that you don’t always have the “right” answer; there are many answers to the same question.
  3. Practice Active Tolerance – To be actively tolerant means to allow for other opinions and points of view, while still standing firmly behind your own. You don’t have to agree, but you should accept that others have differing opinions.
  4. Explain Yourself – Undoubtedly, you’ll make a fool of yourself and have a monkey moment or two during your integration. Instead of hiding behind a tree branch, talk about them with your hosts and explain why your behaviors and views differ from their own.

Accepting Inaction

“The locals are always late! So disrespectful!”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard something along those lines in cultures where time is valued differently than in the Western world.

In some cultures, being late is not a problem. But to Westerners, it’s a waste of time, money, and is a mark of disrespect.

Yelling and berating the locals for their culture valuation of time isn’t acceptance; it’s accepting inaction.

Accepting in Action

Instead of pulling your hair out, someone who is looking to integrate into a culture where the trains don’t run on time must go with the flow.

Relax.

I know many travelers who’ve accepted another culture’s valuation of time but still follow their own internal clock. This is accepting in action. I also know many who’ve adapted to and adopted it, themselves.

We’ll talk about adapting next week.

 

Step 1 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Awareness

What happens when you wade into the waters of a new culture, one in which the waves are warmer or colder, one in which 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.

Heightened Awareness

When we’re put into an environment that’s unlike our own, it sets off our spidey-senses. Suddenly, our awareness is heightened, because everything that’s going on around us is all 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.

Monkey Moments

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.