History is in the Eye of the Beholder: Why There Is No “One Truth” When It Comes to Culture

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – or so the saying goes.

And so is history.

History may be “written by the victors,” but in most cases, the “victors” don’t permanently wipe out all other perspectives (thankfully).

Opposing views of history co-exist and, if you’re doing business in a new culture – or living in it – an awareness of that culture’s perspective of history, particularly its own, will help you succeed…and avoid some serious cultural faux pas.

How?

UPS in Germany

Consider this: when UPS tried to introduce new business in West Germany in 1976, the company didn’t consider the historical roots of brown uniforms there.

UPS’s recognizable “brown shirts” were reminiscent of Hitler Youth uniforms to locals.

Tensions arose due to this serious oversight, and UPS was forced to introduce green employee uniforms instead. 

But cultural insensitivity was their first impression.

This could have all been avoided with a little bit of historical knowledge and common sense.

Moreover, another important thing to remember about history is that, when it comes to cultural understanding, it’s open to interpretation.

Interpreting History

Although there may be one truth, no one will ever know it.

Historical events can be perceived differently by opposing cultures and are subject to interpretation.

Knowing that, when introduced to your host culture, look at their history not only through the lens of your own culture, but through their own.

If you look at another’s history only through the framework of your culture’s historical perspective of it, that singular interpretation of the facts likely won’t provide the same view.

In the sense that you’re trying to understand the perspective of another culture, that interpretation is pretty useless to you.

While we hope for objectivity in history-telling, the reality is that subjectivity colors history writing a great deal.

Historians often write within the biased framework of their culture’s own national and political interests.

Cultural bias is difficult to recognize, particularly coming from academics or historians, whom we’d like to believe are “above” bias.

But nationalist tradition often enters into historical interpretation, and cultural preconceptions and stereotypes are extremely resistant to facts.

Only when faced with foreign opposition of said facts may any sort of bias be detected.

We’ll illustrate this contrast of opposing historical views next week.

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.