Analogies: Understanding Culture Through Powerful Mental Models

You are a manager in a foreign culture. You look at everything through your cultural lens.

Workplace behaviors are strange. Your colleagues’ habits seem irrational.

You feel like a visitor at the zoo, a spectator observing everyone.

In actuality, you are in their habitat; not the other way around. You are the odd one out, behaving according to your “strange” cultural norms and values in their culture.

You are the monkey in the zoo.

This is an example of an analogy: a powerful image that enables you to adapt your mental model to the reality of your environment or situation.

Last week, we talked about German manager, Marie, and her struggle working in a French office.

It was an analogy – the French office is like a royal court – that assisted her in adapting her frame of interpretation.

Why do analogies work?

Because they familiarize unfamiliar situations, helping us form new mental models to confront the unknown.

Analogies Reshape Mental Models

Schemes, representations, and images form the mental models used to perceive and understand the world around us.

These are largely based on past experience, education, and training.

The mental models we’ve developed provide shortcuts in decision-making, allowing us to make decisions quickly and efficiently without necessarily having all the details at our fingertips.

Because we don’t have all the details, mental models abstract reality; they are biased. They make the real world more simplistic than it actually is.

Despite significant experience or education to back our mental models, at some point, they are usually wrong in one way or another.

What’s worse is mental models are deeply rooted and slow – if not impossible – to change.

Analogies, however, make that change easier.

By “tricking” our brains into seeing something that previously seemed concrete (office behaviors, for instance) in a new light (viewing French companies like royal courts), we are able to draw different connections and conclusions than our previous mental model allowed, thus arriving at new decisions that more adequately address the reality of the environment.

Making the Unfamiliar Familiar

Unknown social constructs are reshaped by analogies into a picture you can comprehend.

The fresh perspective from this corrected mental model will allow you to make more rational decisions relative to the social constructs of the culture.

There are, however, limits to analogies. Like anything, they aren’t perfect.

But a good analogy that accurately represents a cultural dynamic that doesn’t align with your own is always an improvement on the mental model you’ve brought with you from abroad.

Trying to fit another’s culture into your own is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

So, how do you create good analogies?

Next week, we’ll talk about how Geert Hofstede’s dimensions can help.

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.