The Art of Crossing Cultures

IMG_6711  More and more corporations are sending employees on overseas jobs, and, according to the author of “The Art of Crossing Cultures” up to thirty percent of these employees suffer from some sort of assignment failure. “Assignment failure” can mean that the employee quits and returns to his or her home country early, or it can simply mean that the employee stays on, but becomes less and less effective.

Enter author Craig Storti, whose Washington, DC-based intercultural communication training and consulting firm was created to help corporations train their employees who will be working abroad, so that they will be more successful in dealing with people from different cultures.

You may wonder, what does all of this have to do with me, the person who travels, not for a job assignment, but for fun and personal growth? I picked up the book because the title “The Art of Crossing Cultures” sounded like something which could very well apply to me. I indeed found that many of the issues discussed in the book resonated strongly with me, and with my thoughts on the way people travel.

My website, Grace’s Travel Talk, is aimed at people whose travel philosophy meshes with the ideas of travel guru Rick Steves. An important part of his travel philosophy is that, to get the most out of visiting a foreign country, the traveler should immerse themselves in the local culture, and interact as much as possible with the local people.

IMG_6710  At the heart of Mr. Storti’s ideas is that the failure to do just those things lead employees to socialize more and more with other expats from their own culture. By doing this they are less and less likely to learn and understand about the culture of the local people, which leads to a cumulative increase in misunderstandings, and hurts their ability to work successfully abroad in so many ways  they cannot even fathom.

First, the author isolates what he calls “country shock” from “culture shock”.  “Country Shock” is that first period after moving to a different country, before the expat learns how to get around and how to obtain the basic necessities of life. Homesickness, loneliness, feeling inept and out of one’s depth are part of this first period, of course. If the assignment is in a third world country, climate, sudden bouts of debilitating diarrhea, stinging insects, undependable phone service, transportation, and air-conditioning are added to the list!

Most expats, the author maintains, do get over “country shock” after a while.  He suggests getting as much rest as you can, while remembering that this is the very time that it is important to keep in contact with people. Often “country shock” is more difficult for the stay-at-home spouse (and there often is one, as overseas jobs don’t usually come in pairs) because that person doesn’t have the distractions of the job to keep them busy.

The main cause of most “assignment failure” of overseas employees is not “country shock”,  but rather “culture shock”, because rather than getting better over time, problems arising from “culture incidents” can make the employee’s effectiveness grow worse and worse. For the purpose of his book, Mr. Storti defines a “cultural incident” as a cross-cultural encounter goiing wrong, “when either one of the parties is confused, offended, frustrated or otherwise put off” by the behavior of the other party. (Many examples of these “cultural incidents” are given in the book, such as different ideas of being on time, co-workers not saying “no” when they mean “no” because it would be impolite to do so in their culture, or women expats getting harassed and pinched on the street.)

“Cultural incidents” are the main problem of “assignment failure” which means the failure of an expat employee to be a success at his assigned job. Because the cultural norms of the local society are so different than what he or she has been conditioned to all of his or her life, so many of the contacts the expat has with local people result in his or her being confused or offended, (or in his or her causing offense and confusion among the locals.) Far too often, expat employees retreat into socializing only with other expats, Mr. Storti maintains, creating the well-known phenomenon of the “expat colony”.

Mr. Storti insists that we musn’t underestimate the damage that can be done by this behavior. Groups of expats who gather to gether tend to reinforce the negative stereotypes about the local society that their group holds, as a way of justifying their need to spend their time with their own kind. The expat colonies are constantly holding events to keep eachother busy, so that the social calendar is so full that even if expats wish to socialize with locals, there is no time to do so! And the more time the expat hangs out with their own kind, the less able they will be able to understand the co-workers they must work with. “Avoiding the locals,” writes the author, “is no solution.”

It is not surprising that so many expats follow this patter , he says. Being able to depend on cultural “norms” is necessary if we are to interact with others, even in our own culture. We may not be consciously ethnocentric, but “what the conscious intellect tells us is no match for what a lifetime of cultural conditioning has told us”. Another insightful quote from the book is “We are operating, rather, at the level of instinct, and logic never wins a fair fight with instinct.”

Mr. Storti’s way for a person to solve this problem is disarmingly simple: to train himself or herself to be aware of every time you are upset by something a local does.  This is hard to do, he says, because we are used to experiencing emotions, not to analyzing them and interpreting them. He suggests, “taking a time at the end of every day when you deliberately try to recall times during the day when you were upset or agitated by something a local person did”.

Over time, with practice, you will start to analyze these reactions in REAL time, right when they happen. When you begin to see the wounds as self-inflicted, you can start filling the gap by learning about local norms, either by observation, asking questions, or by reading about it. (Or, of course, I’m sure that you can consult with Mr. Storti’s culture experts!)

The author does not expect you to comply with all local behavior; he states that “cultural effectiveness should never be purchased at the expense of one’s self-respect”. What the author does ask is that we do not reject behavors “out-of-hand” before understanding them.

Speaking the language can be one of your greatest assets, and you start getting benefits long before you are profficient.  And he notes that if  you pigeonhole yourself with the expat colony, your profficiency with the local language will “hardly flourish”!

The payoff for all this, for truly learning “the art of crossing cultures” can be outstanding. It greatly increases your chances of success on the job you are doing in that country. Successful expats add great value to their organization.  The better you understand the local culture, the harder it is for the locals to hide behind it. Locals will be more likely to give your ideas a fair chance. You will have more of a sense of security, and you can relax more and let your own personality free. There will be less psychological fatigue from always trying to second guess what’s going on.

What an interesting book! I see parallels between the different types of expats and the different types of travelers I have observed. For instance, independent travelers end up interacting for a much larger percentage of their travel time with local people, compared to those on a group tour or on a cruise, who are in a sense spending much of their time in a kind of “expat colony bubble”.

In the book’s last chapter, Mr. Storti summarizes his recommendations for those who wish to be successful at “the art of crossing cultures”. They are “that you keep a close watch over how you spend your time,  that you resist the natural temptation to seek out the familiar and the comfortable, that you train yourself to monitor your emotional states, and finally, that you try not to judge the local people before you understand them.”

Do these recommendations not apply just as well to those who travel for fun and for personal growth?