Embrace Cultural DifferencesIn my first two articles about cultural consensus, I defined cultural competency and provided a self-awareness test.  In the meantime, I personally struggle with the axiom that until we embrace and accept our friends, family and neighbors, we’re never going to have peace in this world.  So what’s next?  Having understood that I need to define each group as a separate and distinct culture, and recognizing that I have hidden, unrealized biases, I want to do something about them.  This is going to happen when I take a positive attitude about cultural differences and embrace them – this is the very essence of diversity training.

Remember, as a German, I consider myself to be part of a group that is rather serious and stoic.  So in a recent conversation with a friend, I was intrigued by her experience.  She is used to being in a pretty insular environment: American and Jewish.  She recently found herself on a one-week cruise with just sixteen passengers; she was the only U.S. citizen and one of two Jews.  The others were Canadian, Mauritian, Australian and German.  The Germans, she said, stood out.  They were the youngest; drank tea, not wine or liquor; did not socialize at night with the group; and sat quietly on the upper deck staring at the stars each night.  They shared with my friend that, but for her, they felt as if they were on a Carnival Cruise, viewing the others as boisterous and raucous.  My friend had an entirely different view: no one had more than two glasses of wine a night; everyone was inclusive; everyone was happy, upper middle class, educated, smart and healthy.  She didn’t think Carnival Cruise; she thought this is the best time I’ve ever had!  When everyone shared their names and contact information on the final night, the Germans said to her, “No wonder we liked you, you are German,” reaching this conclusion because of her German-sounding last name – in fact, she is Hungarian.

This anecdote fulfills all the requirements of accepting and embracing cultural differences and taking a positive attitude toward them.  My friend, unlike the German couple, took the time to get to know everyone.  She saw first what they shared: economic class, and a love of travel, nature and adventure.  She then saw their diversity: different countries, religions, ways of socializing, attitude toward drinking, attitude toward telling off-color jokes, acceptance of other people.  And, she took everything into account getting to know each person on his or her own merits.

The result?  She enjoyed the best of everyone on the cruise ship.  She loved the young German couple and had serious meaningful conversations with them.  They were highly experienced travelers and photographers.  They shared their stunning photographs and videos with her and have invited her to visit them in Germany.  She and one of the Canadian women have become life-long friends, communicating daily and supporting each other in their daily struggles.  They share a lot, but, not everything.  In fact, she is teaching this person about Judaism as, hard as it is to believe, the Canadian had met (to her knowledge) only one Jewish person in her life.  The Australian woman is a brave and independent soul who freely travels around the world to the most remote and exotic locales by herself.  Now my friend is going away alone for the first time ever.

When faced with cultural differences, the best thing to do is dive in, not run away and avoid.  Take the opportunity to turn the experience into one you will enjoy and that will enhance your life.  And, in the process, give something back to the other. This is the pathway to understanding.  This is the way we will bridge gaps and, some day I hope, have peace.  And, if you need some instructions for how to connect with people from different cultures, here is a recipe for creating rapport:

  1. Be authentic
  2. Be respectful
  3. Be cognizant of other’s cultural mores (e.g., eye contact; greeting styles; formality/informality; etc.
  4. Show at least a modicum of interest in their culture.  E.g., if you say one Spanish sentence to a Latin person, they love it.  E.g., if I am in Germany and I tell someone I’m from Pittsburgh, and they say, “Pittsburgh Steelers!” there’s an immediate connection.  In Germany, talk about how they did in the world cup.
  5. Bottom line: be authentic and respectful, and you can’t go too far wrong.

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