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What's going on here?: the 7,250easy steps for effective cross-cultural understanding

Our small group of Canadian teachers entered the classroom of the Kenyan school we were visiting. We planned to spend a few days interacting with, capacity building, encouraging and – we hoped – have some fun with our Kenyan counterparts. Teachers, administrators and teacher helpers had gathered to welcome us – their visitors. Our host directed us to the chairs in front, placed in a semi-circle facing the gathered Kenyans.

I immediately felt uncomfortable, out of place and wanted to run. I was early in my cultural awareness; I recognized something was going on and I needed only to follow our host’s directions. I took my chair in the semi-circle, smiling at the Kenyans waiting for our presentation to start.

We students of culture love to dissect and dis-assemble a situation to identify the components: leadership structure, honour dynamics, hospitality assumptions, etc. The truth is, however, all cultural situations have many of these characteristics mixed and mingled; the nuance and depth is bottomless 7,250 combinations and permutations.

Back to that classroom. I wanted to be part of the group (low leadership distance, egalitarian) while my Kenyan friends value position of honour, authority and office titles (high leadership distance, hierarchical).

They put us in the place of honour; we wanted to be one of the team.

I’ve written recently about curiosity – “what’s going on here? Why am I reacting this way?” I’ve written about the why – “Our mission goals will be best filled by sitting in the front.” The positioning of the chairs in the room opens up the what of cross-cultural engagement; usually called cultural knowledge or awareness.

Individualistic or collectivistic?

high or low power distance?,

Direct or indirect communication? (context)

And I could go on...

The first step in cultural knowledge is to examine ourselves. “Know yourself!” Socrates and Aristotle instructed. So did St. Paul: “… think of yourself with sober judgement.” So do I. (yep! I’m lumping myself with these great thinkers). Ask yourself, or better, take some assessments, that help identify your cultural preferences and values. I, for example, tend to be low leadership and egalitarian. So in my time in Kenya I had to swallow my preference and allow those worked with to treat me with preference (seats at the front) and insist on a title (I had to settle for “Teacher” David since I was not a Doctor (though some insisted in calling me that) nor was I a pastor (though some insisted in calling me that).

As the teacher of the class, I took my seat at the head of the table. We all opened our textbooks to the page and began to read and discuss the content (the cultural way of most education in Kenya; another thing I had to understand, get used to and adapt myself to). We were reading and discussing Leadership. The text was written from a leadership ‘guru’ from the US – a fairly high egalitarian culture. He instructed leaders to be team-leaders; to be in the midst of the team, helping, coaching even working along side of them. He instructed that the leader invite and accept evaluation, advice even correction from those they are leading. And so on. I stopped the discussion (the group I was leading was, it appeared to me, passively accepting the teaching.) “Would this work in Kenya?” I asked

“No!” they said nearly in unison. “Leaders lead! He would lose respect and his authority if he did this.”

Cultural knowledge – the what? of cultural intelligence – changes depending upon who you are engaging with. It begins with “what’s going on around here?” and ends in research, learning, asking, … It continues with learning what you need to know. It continues, then, with what strategies are you going to employ? but that's another conversation.

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