Respect Culture: How to Respond to Norms that Make You Uncomfortable

What does respect mean to you?

In the face of disagreement, in the face of, perhaps, discomfort or even anger, what does it mean to respect someone with whom you do not share values or norms?

An example:

You’re Japanese, and you’ve moved to Spain. The Spanish are a warm, open and friendly culture. A kiss on both cheeks is a common greeting, whether you’re a friend or a stranger being met for the first time.

This social norm is not only one you’re not used to; it’s one that makes you incredibly uncomfortable.

What do you do?

Discomfort

I actually know a Japanese woman who struggled with this exact scenario.

She was the wife of a diplomat who had recently transferred to Spain. I met her at a language school.

Not only did she grow up in a culture that is as far removed from Spain as it possibly can be, she was also born to an aristocratic family, so her upbringing was even more disciplined than most. From childhood, she had been taught that public spaces and situations were not the place for physical human contact.

Remember: the Japanese greeting is a bow. A handshake is even too intimate. So, imagine then transitioning into a country in which men and women engage in this public display of affectionate greeting.

A kiss on both cheeks seemed too much for her to bear.

Tolerate, Comply and/or Explain

According to LQ Williams of Owlcation:

“Tolerance is the recognition of the universal human rights and freedoms of others… and the recognition of the value of differences without judgement.”

Tolerance, in essence, is respecting diversity, the world over. Despite feeling uncomfortable with certain cultural norms, you can still demonstrate your tolerance and respect for the culture by complying with other cultural behaviors.

In my Japanese friend’s case, she was taking this step: she was actively trying to learn the language.

Lastly, if you find yourself between a rock and a hard place – that is, between an attempt to integrate into the culture and your discomfort with some of this culture’s social norms and values – then explaining yourself goes a long way.

As Core Languages notes: “Often, just trying to be culturally sensitive is appreciated. Even if you don’t execute well, you’ve taken the time to learn about another and invested in a relationship.”

Who knows – maybe somewhere down the road, you’ll become comfortable with those norms that were initially a roadblock for you, just like my Japanese friend did.

Instead of only accepting the norm, she chose to overcome her deep level of physical discomfort and adapt.

These are some of the battles you may face when living and working in a foreign country. It’s up to you where you draw the line.

But know that in some cases, if you draw the line too close to your own cultural comfort, you may be impeding yourself from successful cross cultural integration.

Step 1 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Awareness in Action

Awareness of cultural differences creates the capacity to be culturally sensitive.

Note that I didn’t say it will create cultural sensitivity; rather, it will create the capacity to be culturally sensitive.

Cultural sensitivity is a choice, and if you want to successfully work and integrate into a foreign culture, it’s a necessary one. Being aware that you are the monkey will enable you to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and actively Accept, Adapt, and Adopt the ways of your host culture, all of which will ease your integration.

Stages of Cultural Awareness

Not everyone is culturally aware.

Some choose not to be, while some are innately oblivious. Others choose cultural sensitivity, and still, others have become so integrated that sensitivity soon becomes natural to them.

There are four stages of cultural awareness:

  • Unconscious incompetence (blissful ignorance)
  • Conscious incompetence (troubling ignorance)
  • Conscious competence (deliberate sensitivity)
  • Unconscious competence (spontaneous sensitivity)

The unconsciously incompetent doesn’t know he’s the monkey. He is not culturally aware.

The consciously incompetent knows she’s the monkey but doesn’t try to integrate. She is culturally aware but is stubborn to change.

The consciously competent makes deliberate efforts to be culturally sensitive. He is culturally aware and is trying to actively integrate.

And, lastly, the unconsciously competent has fully integrated. Cultural sensitivity becomes natural to her, and she no longer must think about how to act or behave around the host culture. She just does it.

Example 1: Awareness Inaction

I once worked with a conscious incompetent. This individual’s foreign integration was being aided through cultural awareness and language training. When he wasn’t grasping the language as quickly as he wanted to, he became frustrated with the language instructor. In fact, he had a shouting match with said instructor and deemed the culture “inept” during cultural awareness lessons.

Two years later, I met this same man as he was finishing his contract. The entire two years he’d been involved in the program, he’d not advanced his language beyond the proficiency of the initial three-month course, nor had he initiated any projects at site. He blamed his hosts for a lack of interest.

In the end, he only had bad things to say about the host country, the program, the community in which he’d lived, and the colleagues with which he’d worked. And I’m sure they didn’t have too many positive things to say about him.

This is conscious incompetence in a nutshell: an awareness of cultural differences, but a refusal to integrate. And the result is zero self-growth and complete inaction regarding project developments and cross-cultural understanding.

Example 2: Awareness in Action

In that same program, I met a woman who came to the host country with no knowledge of the language. She was active in learning during the three-month language training and was adamant about presenting herself with cross-cultural sensitivity.

She faced similar cultural issues at site as the man had. Sometimes there was a general lack of interest in her ideas and lackluster motivation from her colleagues. But utilizing her conscious competence, she rallied her host site around her, wrote a grant, ran a summer camp, put on a cultural afterschool program, and was extremely active in her community. She also continued to work on her language and, by the end of her term, had advanced to intermediate language proficiency.

She had grown personally, had provided great value to her school and community, and had left a positive imprint in the memories of all those who worked with her. And, by the end of her two-year contract, she’d achieved stage 3 in her cultural awareness and was well on her way to stage 4: unconscious competence. Her cultural sensitivity had become natural; she no longer had to think before acting.

This is the difference between awareness inaction and awareness in action. The key to making your awareness active is to Accept, Adapt, and Adopt your host culture.

We’ll take a look at accepting next week.