A Zookeeper in Action: When Locals Help Explain Foreign Behavior

As a Third Culture Kid living in Africa, I would sit in the shade with my father when visitors came.

One day, a trusted employee named André stopped by.

As was normal in the Mossi culture, discussion unfolded at length in a friendly manner, while we drank cup after cup of water.

When the conversation wound down, André at last stood to leave.

It was only then that the aim of his visit became known.

The Favor

A wedding was approaching, and André wanted to ask my dad for help in transporting bags of sorghum (a type of grain). 

The pair sat down again to discuss.

My father told André that while he would like to help, he was unfortunately very busy and couldn’t take the day off that the bad roads would require to transport the grain.

André left and, from that day onward, their relationship was broken.

My father’s trusted employee and cohort now avoided him like the plague.

My father wondered what he’d done wrong. He felt helpless and couldn’t change what happened.

He also couldn’t find fault in what he had said or done. 

He understood he’d had a monkey moment but wasn’t sure what his blunder was.

He really was busy and, on such short notice, couldn’t accommodate André’s request. He had explained and apologized for this.

No matter how hard he tried, his relationship with André didn’t improve.

At a loss, my father sought out his zookeeper for assistance.

The Zookeeper Explains

Freeman Kabore was born of noble blood from Ouagadougou.

He spent time studying in Europe and so had familiarity with both cultures; the perfect quality in a zookeeper.

When my father told Zookeeper Freeman about what had unfolded between him and André, Freeman taught him something about Mossi culture.

An important request like this one should not be refused upon sight.

Instead, one should take the time to consider the request – or at least have the courtesy to appear to take the time to consider it.

If my father had told André, “I will think about it. Please come back tomorrow, and I will let you know,” and then, the following day, kindly declined, this would have been acceptable in Mossi culture.

To the Mossi, this face-saving formality shows your friend the respect he deserves.

Being delivered a direct “no” is considered rude and inconsiderate.

With help from Zookeeper Freeman, my father learned an important norm of the Mossi culture, one that would save him from further monkey moments and help him maintain valuable friendships.

Next week, we’ll talk about Third Culture Kids: the ultimate zookeepers.

Americans vs. the Swiss: Defining Friendship

An American sits down beside a Swiss on an airplane. 

After some initial friendly banter (one-sided from the American), he asks, “Where are you off to?”

The Swiss, slightly uncomfortable, is reluctant to respond, but the American doesn’t take the cue.

Without prompt, he proceeds to share his entire trip with the Swiss. He was visiting his son who lives abroad in France. They went on a bike journey across the Baltics together. He’s now heading home to Minnesota, where he’s retired. He and his wife have three other kids, all of whom are newly out of the nest. Their absence has been particularly hard on him, and he’s been trying to find new hobbies – like biking – to fill that empty void where activities with his children once stood.

“Enough about me…” he wraps up. “What about you? What do you do?”

The Swiss squirms in his seat. This man is a stranger, and it’s none of his business. Even worse, the Swiss has nowhere to turn. The nonstop flight is eight hours. Would it be rude to put his headphones in?

This is a marked difference between American and Swiss culture.

Small talk is a common, acceptable, and even appreciated social norm in America.

In Switzerland, not so much.

Sharing Personal Info

This chart illustrates just how uncomfortable the above American just made his Swiss cohort.

The Swiss only share small talk with buddies or friends – and sometimes with colleagues.

In fact, the American went well past small talk, sharing non business related topics, personal factual information, and even personal emotional themes, all of which are only shared between close friends in Switzerland.

To breach this wall with a stranger can feel egregious to the Swiss.

As we talked about last week, respecting others’ privacy is highly valued in Swiss culture.

Their “bubble” is much larger than that of their American counterpart.

Comfort Zone of Communication

The comfort zone of communication is considerably tighter in Switzerland and the scope of people with whom they communicate narrower.

Americans talk about anything and everything with their friends and are, more often than not, comfortable sharing more with a broader range of people as well, whether they be acquaintances or even strangers on a plane.

Swiss view friendship as intimate and permanent. Being a friend means being there, through thick and thin; it’s a life-long commitment not to be taken lightly.

Essentially, the Swiss have no “degrees” of friendship; they have a single solid unalterable definition.

Americans, on the other hand, have a wider range of friendships. They might have people they consider close friends who always have their back, others they consider fun and easygoing buddies who come and go from their lives, and still others with whom they’d be happy to grab a beer and discuss politics but not necessarily share their deepest darkest secrets.

While Americans might view “close” friendships similarly to the way the Swiss view friendship in general, they are also more often open to lighthearted, casual friendships with most anyone.

To some, they might be considered “fair-weather friends,” while to others with whom they are more intimate, they are considered loyal.

But they are willing to share degrees of themselves and their lives with even strangers, all the same.

So, how does one make friends in a culture with such a different concept of friendship?

We’ll bridge that gap next week.

Relationship- vs. Rule-Based Cultures: Socially-Based Control vs. Individual Autonomy

Imagine living in a culture where the village and the individual are one and the same.

That’s how the Bantu cultures of sub-Saharan Africa see things: an individual’s welfare is dependent on the village’s and vice versa.

One example of the way this manifests in the culture’s social norms is in their greeting.

The Shona people greet others with Maswere sei (“How is your day?”).

The response is Ndiswera maswerawo (“My day is OK if yours is.”).

Relationships are a fundamental part of the culture, so social control is exercised through relationships.

Last week, we talked about how cultures differ in their views of rules and relationships.

In the Shona society, certain relative figureheads are in authoritarian roles over subordinates in the family. Wives are subordinate to husbands, children to parents, younger siblings to older siblings, and all to the village elders.

The culture sees this subordination as natural. Subordinates don’t buck against the hierarchy, because it is the way of life, and the society’s baobab roots are formed and interconnected by relationships.

In contrast, rule-based cultures don’t see rules and relationships this way.

Human Beings as Autonomous Individuals

Rule-based societies view human beings as autonomous (i.e. having no natural authority over others).

As we saw in last week’s post, the authority in such cultures is rather embodied in the rules – rules that are applied to everyone.

This Western cultural concept can be traced back to God and the Ten Commandments.

God is seen as a lawmaker. He governs using universal rule of law.

The Greeks also influenced the West’s rule-based values, as they saw individuals as generally rational and rules as generally logical.

This idea is the basis of “homo economicus,” a principle in which a prosperous society is based on a logical and rational people.

It follows then that, in rule-based cultures, management and behavior is based upon the culture’s respect for rules.

Both cultural types have rules, but they differ in their relation to these rules in two ways:

  • In relationship-based cultures, the authority of rules is directly related to the authority of the person who lays down the law, while in rule-based cultures, rules are respected for their sake.
  • Moreover, in relationship-based cultures, supervision and shame ensure compliance with rules, while in rule-based cultures, fear of punishment and guilt are used for the same.

How This Difference Affects Business Relations

These complex differences can sew distrust between business partners.

Each culture views their own perspective on rules and relationships as just and right. In turn, they view the other’s perspective as corrupt.

Imagine this scenario, adapted from Riding the Waves of Culture:

A manager in a relationship-based culture offers his nephew a lofty position in the company, despite the fact that this nephew is unqualified.

A rule-based colleague of this manager tells his counterparts:

“They’ll always help their friends and family over more qualified candidates. It’s nepotism. They cannot be trusted.”

On the opposite side, the relationship-based manager sees his rule-based colleague pass up a friend for a position in lieu of a more qualified candidate.

He tells his team:

“He will not even help a friend? How can we trust him?”

In this way, cross-cultural business relations can be easily damaged or decimated, when the motives of other cultures are not understood.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to avoid this misunderstanding.

10 Cultural Universals: You Are What You Eat, How Values Become Culture

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: what we value is who we are.

We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab.

They define our culture, and they direct our social norms.

This grouping of the 10 Cultural Universals also includes beliefs and rituals, which tie in with values in ways we’ll discuss in upcoming posts.

You Are What You Eat

What we are fed as children – in the forms of both formal and informal education – is, more often than not, what we accept and value as adults.

As Kilroy J. Oldster wrote in Dead Toad Scrolls:

“A great deal of the global stimuli that we view comes to us without major effort. Daily a person scans and screens a wide barrage of solicited and unsolicited material. What information a society pays attention to creates the standards and principles governing citizens’ life. A nation’s discourse translates its economic, social, and cultural values to impressionable children.” 

Our national discourse, what we project and adulate as a society, the meaning and importance we place on certain beliefs, ideals, and attitudes – these are the things our children consume.

We are what we eat. Our children will become what we feed them.

Education vs. Ignorance

“The right to a quality education is, I believe, the perfect path to bridge the gap between different cultures and to reconcile various civilizations…Ignorance is by far the biggest danger and threat to humankind.” – Moza bint Nasser

If we feed children quality food, in the form of education, they will value knowledge, critical thinking, and the ethics and moral teachings therein.

If we feed them garbage, in the form of false narratives, baseless “facts”, and unwarranted prejudice, they will value conspiracies, groupthink, and stereotypes.

A culture creates its own values and also consumes them.

So, remember, whatever values you cultivate within your culture should be cultivated with care. Values are meant to keep society healthy. They’re meant to show what integrity means to you as a people and to show others what you stand for.

What We Eat

Like social norms, the beliefs and rituals of your culture are what actualize our underlying values.

Beliefs are what we eat; rituals are how we eat.

Rituals, especially, are values in action.

We’ll talk about both in the coming weeks.

10 Cultural Universals: Transportation Culture & Social Movements

Amsterdam is a bicycler’s paradise.

Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Bali.

Knowing your way around the subway or the Tube is essential in NYC or London, respectively.

People all across the world have a common need: to get from here to there.

Whether on foot, by bus, or aboard a gondola, the methods of travel in every nation or region are unique and practical to the culture born there.

Last week, we discussed traditional clothing and how clothing culture evolves with the times.

This week, we’ll take a look at transport and its evolution, a topic which falls under the same umbrella of basics – along with food, clothing, and shelter – as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

Practicality and Culture

Each culture has its own public and preferred methods of transport. These methods vary across regions, based largely upon two things:

1) Practicality – the most functional mode of transport, considering the landscape and infrastructure of the area

2) Social norms & values – the social norms and values that drive these transport choices

The favored method of transport is often chosen due to the type of transport culture that’s cultivated in any given region. It’s also chosen based upon practicality (which usually influences why society cultivates that type of transport culture, in the first place).

The Bicycling Capital

Let’s take Amsterdam, for example.

‘Bike Street: Cars are Guests’

Amsterdam is often called “the bicycling capital of the world,” and this is largely due to a social movement that happened in the ‘70s.

While prior to WWII, bicycling was already the predominant form of transportation across the Netherlands, car ownership exploded in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was soon so popular that roads were congested, and bicyclists were literally shunted to the side.

With more motor vehicles zipping around, the number of road fatalities sky-rocketed. 3,000 people – including 450 children – were killed by drivers in 1971.

‘Stop the Child Murder’ Social Movement

This is when a social movement formed, called ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder). The movement’s name was derived from journalist Vic Langenhoff’s article of the same title, which he’d written after his own child had been killed on the road.

The Middle East oil crisis of 1973 also informed the move toward reinstating bicycling as the primary form of transport. As the Dutch’s reliability on foreign oil was shaken, the motor vehicle seemed less sustainable than previously thought.

Thus, the Dutch government renewed their investment in bicycling infrastructure – with more cycling paths, smoother biking surfaces, parking facilities, bike-sharing programs, and clear signage and lights.

Biking is now a daily part of most Dutch people’s daily lives, which means that children grow up with this cycle-centric primary socialization. This makes for a homegrown biking culture, ever popular in a world promoting greener transport options.

In this way, Amsterdam’s traditional and revitalized biking culture is ahead of the pack, and forward-thinking “smart city” cultures are following in their bike tracks (see: Barcelona, Mexico City).

Next week, we’ll discuss transport culture further.

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.

Monkey Moments: What Should You Do When Culturally Adapting is Impossible?

What beverage do you order with lunch?

In the US, you might have a Coke.

In Germany, you’d probably order a beer.

And in France, perhaps a glass of wine.

For those moving to one of these countries, this is a simple enough behavior to adapt to.

But what happens when the behavior is not that simple? What happens when becoming “one of the locals” is impossible?

One of the Locals

Speaking a foreign language. Learning a special set of skills. Drinking unfiltered water.

Due to their complexity or the body’s own limitations, these are the types of behaviors where adaptation may be more difficult.

Learning a language requires patience, dedication, and time. Not everyone who is living abroad has all of these in abundance, especially if living in the foreign country for only a short period.

In regions of Africa, the handshake requires a special set of skills, because it’s rather elaborate. Without practice, the finger-snapping greetings are difficult to master.

And, in certain cases – like drinking unfiltered water in Africa, for instance – your body may simply not allow you to adapt. Although it’s the tradition in a number of ethnic communities in Africa to offer visitors water to drink, sometimes your health must take precedence over local custom.

And refusing to speak, greet, or drink may provoke monkey moments.

Monkey Moments

Although your inability to adapt may not be by choice, but rather by time, skill, health, or any other restrictive factor, this inability may still provoke monkey moments.

(Remember: a monkey moment is when your foreign nature is revealed to everyone through your actions…or, in some cases, your inactions).

How do you overcome these monkey moments?

If the short duration of your stay doesn’t allow you enough time to learn an entire language, learn the local greetings and short phrases. Doing so will show the locals that you are making an effort to communicate.

Don’t have the skills to master the complex local handshake?

Give it your best shot, and the locals will surely acknowledge you’re trying.

Can’t stomach the water?

Declining the customary drink may cause a monkey moment, but you must make clear that your health is the reason that you decline. Any other reason would likely be considered rude or disrespectful.

So, my advice is three-fold: make an effort, explain yourself when you physically cannot adapt, and respect the local culture.

This is ultimately what a successful cross-cultural relationship comes down to. We’ll talk more about respect next week.

Open Hearts, Open Minds: How Much Should a Foreign Manager Expect to Accept & Adapt to the Culture?

Say, you’re a store manager at a retail company, and you’ve been sent abroad to work out the kinks at your sister store in Tokyo. You’re a fish out of water, a monkey out of his home tree, and your managerial style isn’t gelling too well with that of Japanese culture.

The big question: Do you expect your employees to adapt to you and your culture? Or do you expect to adapt to them?

The Cultural Baobab

If you work at an international company, the company culture is usually fairly uniform the world over…but not entirely.

When you’re sent to manage abroad, you’re still working and living in a foreign culture. Just because these employees work for your company doesn’t mean they’ve fully accepted, adapted, and adopted your culture’s practices or behaviors.

We’ve talked a lot about the cultural baobab and how, by identifying and understand its roots (values) and limbs (social norms), you’ll better understand the culture, as a whole.

The point is that living and working successfully in a foreign culture always starts with one thing:

Accept

Accept your host culture as it is.

Don’t fight it.

Don’t condemn it.

Don’t judge it.

This will make managing in the culture a whole lot easier.

Think about it: as the monkey in their baobab, instead of complaining about the branches as you swing from limb to limb, instead of criticizing the roots that grew this tree and spitting out the seeds from its fruits, you should be curious about it, you should admire it, and you should find a home in it.

Accept that your culture’s tree isn’t the only tree in the world. It’s not the superior baobab. It’s not the center of the universe. Accept that there is more than one type of beauty.

There’s a myriad of ways to live life, to organize a society, and to run a business.

Once you recognize this, you’ll see the beauty in this foreign baobab, from the roots to the canopy.

Integrate

In order to successfully manage in a foreign culture, you must integrate into that culture. If you don’t appreciate the beauty of your host nation’s baobab, your employees and colleagues will know it and integration will be null and void.

Accepting doesn’t mean you have to adapt or adopt everything in your host culture, nor must you idolize it.

Accepting does mean that you must make an effort to seek the good in everything with which you are unfamiliar, instead of immediately condemning it as “bad,” because it is foreign to your own values and way of life.

Now, that’s not to say everything about a foreign culture is easy to accept. We’ll talk about how to deal with adverse reactions to your host culture next week.

A Conflict of Conscience: Acting Rationally Within Another’s Cultural Baobab

Most people act rationally within their cultural baobab. But it’s much harder to do so when you’re the monkey in another’s tree.

What do I mean by this?

Last week, we discussed Canadian social norms and how they reflect the nation’s cultural values. Politeness is one of these norms. It’s tied to the values of courtesy and non-confrontation, possibly imparted by the British Tories who settled there.

So what if a dude from a not-so-vocally-polite culture immigrated to Canada and was brazenly “impolite” by Canadian standards?

He would be acting rationally within his own cultural baobab, but not within theirs.

This type of social norm is easy enough to correct: if you want to adapt and integrate into Canadian culture, just throw in a few “please and thank you”s and try to be more courteous to people.

But what if a foreign culture’s values touch a nerve in your own and lead to a conflict of conscience?

Revisiting Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann

Do you remember our friends Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann?

When Ahmed helped Khalid cheat on an exam, Ann was upset, as this didn’t fit into the rationale of her culture.

But it did fit into the rationale of Ahmed and Khalid’s culture.

Absent of strong familial support, individual members might not cope on their own in a third world country. So, Ahmed was only helping his cousin succeed, which is harmonious with the roots and branches of his cultural baobab.

Ann, as well, was acting rationally according to her own baobab. Her culture teaches that an individual should succeed of his own volition; cheating isn’t tolerated and reflects poorly on the individual. Not only that, but the results don’t accurately reflect his abilities.

One problem, however: she didn’t consider that she was viewing the incident from her tree’s perspective, rather than that of the culture she was integrating into.

In pushing Ahmed (and Ahmed’s parents) to conform to her own cultural baobab, she was attempting to make them grow a new branch in a day.

Impossible. And probably unnecessary.

In the end, cheating wouldn’t help Khalid succeed in an individualist society…but he was living in a collectivist one, where knowledge is shared, not exclusive to those smart enough to obtain it.

Do Values Ever Change?

Values are deeply rooted. They’re very difficult to pull up and regrow in any cultural baobab.

Cultures only change through introducing and cultivating values below the surface that eventually sprout new branches and new leaves – the social norms that are watered by society.

In the end, Ann hurt both Ahmed and Khalid. In accusing them of cheating, she publicly stated that Khalid was not smart enough or capable of succeeding, while also accusing Ahmed of being dishonest.

Ahmed felt the sting of losing face, so much so, that he asked to be transferred to a different school near his grandparents’, where no one would look at him negatively.

He lost out on a strong education at a better school, while Ann lost the trust and respect of the parents. No one in this conflict of conscience was better off. And neither the individual’s values, nor the culture’s changed because of it.

When in Rome…How to Adjust to Cross-Cultural Norms 

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

We’ve all heard this motto, and if you want to integrate into a foreign country, it’s true…to a point.

The social norms we’ve talked about within the past few weeks are integral to culture.

Without norms, there’s no conformity. And without conformity, there is no culture.

But, when you take the giant leap that is living in a foreign culture, how much are you expected to conform? How much do you want to conform?

What are you willing to “give up” in order to fit in?

Do As The Romans Do

Like many things in life, the answer to these questions depend on how much you personally want to change to fit in. The degree of your integration also depends on what you are willing to accept about your new culture and what you’re unwilling to adapt to or adopt.

Accepting is the first step when deciding just how much to “do as the Romans do.” And when you take Accepting certain social norms a step further to Adapting, you’ll have an even more successful integration…but this may depend upon your comfort with the social norms to which you’re adapting.

Consider the level of severity of the norms. Accepting and adapting to laws and taboos are a definite must if you wish to integrate properly, because they are the more severe social norms.

To a lesser but very real extent, one should adapt to mores and folkways, as well. However, the latter two have less severe consequences.

…But Don’t Overdo It

While adapting, you might be at risk for over-adapting.

In a Harvard Business Review article by Andy Molinsky, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, Molinsky notes that he often sees individuals over-adapt cross-culturally in business culture and in academia. He calls it “over-switching.”

“Individuals attempt to adapt their behavior to match a particular culture but end up pushing too far, making larger mistakes than if they had just stayed true to themselves,” he writes.

When adjusting to the often less formal U.S. standards in academia, he sees students from more formal cultures “inaccurately calibrate” to being more informal than standard U.S. norms in class, in interviews, and in cover letters.

For example, Molinsky writes, “Students from countries where self-promotion is taboo learn that it’s required in the U.S., but don’t quite understand to what extent self-promotion is acceptable.”

They then lay it on thick, so to speak, and overly self-promote, in an attempt to adapt.

Awareness is key to knowing not to overswitch. And by Taking Action and looking for a zookeeper to guide you, you’ll be able to calibrate your adaption more precisely and “do as the Romans do” even more naturally.