Understanding Self, Understanding Others: Exploring our Cultural DNA
Culture – ethnicity, socioeconomic, religion, education, generation, family structure, profession, business sector and industry, personality, etc. Each of these is in itself a subculture. What is your individual cultural DNA? Can you truly put your finger on a specific workplace or personal issue and label it a cultural matter, or perhaps one that is a combination of ethnicity and work culture, team dynamics, leadership style, or perhaps it is simply a clash of personalities?
For globally mobile professionals and anyone desiring to explore career, educational or personal opportunities across cultures, having basic knowledge on the new environment we plan on transitioning into is a good start, especially if it is a culture very different from our own. However, taking the time to know every individual we cross paths with, professionally or socially, can be challenging in a world when time is considered a precious commodity while patience is becoming a rare virtue. How do we get to the next level of knowing someone quickly and profoundly?
Studying facts, statistics, reports, or attending cultural training is a good starting point to learn about new cultures, but do all people from the same culture behave and think in the same manner? Is it even safe to make generalizations in a world that is increasingly global and multicultural? When we meet someone for the first time, can we simply assume that they are from a certain culture by their complexion, the language they speak or by where they say they are from? For many who have been away extensively from their native cultures for academic, immigration or vocational reasons, these individuals have likely been influenced by customs, traditions or values from cultures they have been exposed to. Our inner programming has the potential to change or be influenced by many factors in our environment. These factors have the ability to shape who we are. From where we spent our formative years, the schools we attended, cultures we have lived, our family size, birth order, personality types, social networks, school of training, and circumstances and events included. Each and every one of these factors, and their combination, has a role in individual upbringing and development. The combination of all such factors makes up our individual cultural DNA.
Within our personal relationships, how many of us truly know our partners, children, parents or siblings well? Although most parents tend to feel all their children ought to take on similar personality and temperament, have similar lens to the way they view situations, approach life, and see the world. But often, that is not the case. The friction between parents and children, siblings, significant others, in-laws, relatives, and friends appears to be persistent for many, and the level of conflict is often higher for some. We may think we know our loved ones well, but do we really understand them? Fights, arguments, debates, annoyance and frustrations between people is a sign that we do not.
Take it across other environments, profit and non-profit organizations of varying industries and sectors, social and academic institutions – managers and teams, supervisors and employees, volunteers and board members, students and educators. The movement of people across nations continues to rise with globalization. Professionals and young people everywhere aspire to be more and wish to do more, continuously aiming for greater heights in their career and educational pursuits. The population of global nomads take on a culture of their own. Individuals whose place of birth, place of upbringing, and place of residence are often of different continents and across different cultures.
What could be the explanation behind tensions and frictions between people, especially with those we are closest with? How many of us have also made the comment “it’s not me, it’s them” whenever conflicts and misunderstandings arise? Would simply having better communication skills be the solution? Or cultural knowledge on an ethnic group? True understanding between people brings harmony and deeper connections, not friction and distance.
In addition to our ethnicity and the cultures where we have lived, other aspects of our cultural makeup greatly influence the way we think, make decisions, communicate, lead, and relate to others that may not be directly attributed to the culture we are from. An adolescent who has left home for schooling aboard subsequently builds his or her social network throughout his or her academic journey has the potential to become a catalyst of change to the way the individual will see the world. Each pocket of networks the adolescent comes into contact with over the course of his or her lifetime will also have the potential to influence his or her original cultural makeup.
Historical and political events, the age of technology, wars and civil movements also impact individual upbringing and development. Familial situations also play a role. We may know someone who was an orphan, but do we really understand what a life as an orphan entailed? The hardship of a war veteran or a wartime child? A foreign student whose parents fled their homeland from political threats and made an escape to another country with his five siblings? How might such an experience impact the way this student makes decisions around his academic and personal goals? Or the stress level of a CEO of a multinational organization going through a merger and acquisition at work with a child battling a major illness?
Understanding where individuals have been before we meet them, and the history and experience they bring with them to the relationship, give much grounds to a more solid foundation for any connection. Each piece of information we learn about someone forms an aspect of their cultural makeup. The information can provide insights into how we can:
- Better understand others, minimizing misunderstandings and frictions often wedged between people
- Raise our awareness towards individual differences and uniqueness
- Take a different approach towards connecting with others
- Develop deeper connections and rapport with others
To facilitate understanding across cultures and foster global intercultural sensitivity, perhaps we can start in our own backyard where increased empathy and compassion is needed. We can then amplify the impact across all situations and circumstances with the same understanding and application, regardless of the culture involved.
Written by Cecilia Lui, Founder & Director, ILIA Connect
Originally from Hong Kong, Cecilia has spent her 30+ years career between Canada and the Asia Pacific working for multinationals across sectors and industries in corporate administration, communications, business development and learning & development.
Cecilia holds an MA in Communications from California State University, is a Certified Practitioner of Lumina Learning psychometrics for self-team/leadership development and has credentials for Coaching, NLP, and Career and Business Planning.
Cecilia is an instructor in McMaster Continuing Education’s Intercultural Competency program. She has also been an adjunct lecturer at HKUSPACE (International Business Communication Skills) and Hong Kong Baptist University for its Communication Master’s Program.