Cultural awareness is more than just picking a book on cultural practices of a country, at the last minute, before catching a flight headed towards it. It is about understanding what the people of a country or of a specific religious allegiance or a cultural minority believes in and respecting that believe. You don’t have to travel half-way across the globe to do that. If can be sitting in your home meeting a friend who comes from a different cultural and show that you not only are aware of his culture but also respect it.
Cultural practices are like the threads that make up a fabric. Just as one would check the warp and weft count of a finely woven carpet, the same way religion and cultural practices make up the moral fabric of the people of a society. When interacting with people from a different culture, if you know what they believe in and can show that in your own behavior, you are guaranteed an experience that is more than just superficial. E.g., if you are visiting Greece and you have a strong grasp over its culture and history you have your homework done.
Relevance and Use of Cultural Awareness
The biggest use of cultural awareness is during human interactions, specifically when two individuals from two different cultures, that are poles apart, meet and have an exchange of ideas. Behavior which is commonplace in one culture may appear an insult in the other. What is a mark of honesty and truthfulness in one culture becomes a sign of arrogance in the other. If they don’t have an understanding of each other’s cultural practices they could end up hurting each other’s sentiments.
Cultural awareness is a necessity in this shrunken world where communication cycles have sped up from being literally taking days on end to just a few moments. Thanks to the surge of globalization, today, international business deals are executed between two parties even though they never get to sit face to face (well not in person that is) until unless after several deals have been done. But when the two parties meet finally, it is an important meeting nevertheless. You will never get another chance to do it right!
Missing a social cue may be humorous in some instances but they are not so harmless when your every movement is being watched and your every word is being listened to carefully. In a foreign country you are not a visitor but a representative of the culture that you belong to. Your actions speak about the general level of awareness back home.
Cultural differences can sometimes lead to misconception, miscommunication and downright break down communication channels. If a man from Austin Texas, with deep Texan values and practices were to meet a Japanese guy from Tokyo, the exchange of ideas can be interesting. i.e., if they manage not to hurt each other’s feelings before they get to exchange any ideas. A small lesson on cultural awareness could help them both to understand more about each other and carry a happier experience back home.
Steven’s first overseas assignment as the Asia pacific general manger of sales for his company was a short three-month posting in Tokyo. Steven was always intrigued by Japan and being an automotive engineer he respects the ingenuity of Japan and its technology. However, in spite of his regard for the Japanese technology he has absolutely no idea of the Japanese culture. He lands at the Narita International Airport and booked a cab to take him to the office in Edogawa. While getting off near his office he handed the money and smiling at the driver indicated him to keep the change. The driver shook his head and said something in his mother-tongue handing back the loose change to Steven.
What Steven did not know was that tipping is not a custom in Japan. A social and cultural practice that is perceived quite differently back in the US, tipping is often considered an insult in Japan. This is because the service provider has already received the money for his service and there is no reason for him to receive additional money. A small detail which somehow Steven did not care to learn.
Steven’s first meeting was with the local manager. Mr.Yamada is a senior to Steven in both age and work experience. Steven addressed him as Mr.Yamada on his first meeting as he thought it won’t be right to be on first name terms on their first meeting. Good choice, i.e., if he had been back in the US. In this case he should have gone for Yamada-san. The word ‘san’ is an honorific title that is added after the name of a person in Japanese. While Mr.Yamada did refer to Steven as Mr. Smith-san, Steven’s failure to understand the meaning of the custom meant that he started his first interaction on the wrong foot.
How to Improve Cultural Awareness – Joining a Class
Cultural awareness is being taught as a special subject for those who are about to travel to a different country for work, study or visitation. Doing some faux pas in public and embarrassing yourself is never a pleasant thing. Many people find it really difficult to adapt to other cultures and this is where such training can come handy. Say for example if you want to get a quick guide on how to speak conversational Japanese then an online course such as this one can help.
Never Assume Anything
Assumption and intuition can work in certain situations but when it comes to cross cultural interactions they can be your faux pas. Never assume anything. E.g., while in japan, if you think that the tray beside the cash register was just for loose change and hand over the money to the clerk at checkout then you are insulting him/her. The tray has been purposefully kept there so that you don’t hand over the cash physically to the clerk’s hand. The right action would have been to place the money on the tray and let the clerk make change.
When in Rome Do as the Romans Do
An age-old adage which in simple English means when you are visiting a foreign land try and follow the customs. Even if you are not aware of them and you are advised not to assume, you can still respect the local customs if you just follow the general trend. E.g., in many Asian cultures it is a dissent to not leave your shoes behind when entering someone’s home or a place of worship.
Appreciating What Others Do and Believe In
It is strange that even in this age of information, lighting speed internet connectivity and global telecommunications people understand so little about one another. At the very core of this lack of understanding of each other’s culture and believes is the lack of appreciation of what the other person stands for. Getting to know each other other is probably the only way to dissolve international issues. The only way that can happen is by promoting cross-cultural awareness and cultural interactions on a wider scale.
Learning the Language
Speaking the local language immediately gives you an edge. You no longer is a stranger. You are one who can not only communicate but also exchange ideas on a more personal note. Learning a language frees you from the shackles of a superficial experience. This is also the first step to start learning a new culture. If you can manage eating using chopsticks or know how to sit in the traditional Japanese way that may get you some admiration and maybe even a fair share of astonished looks, but that won’t connect you with the Japanese people on a personal level. The only way to do that is by learning the language and speaking it correctly. The results can be magical.
Our world has become a mixture of cultures and identities, and although not every interaction will also be perfect, it is identifying our differences that brings us together. Being consciously aware of of how to engage in cross cultural interaction is a tool that is not only a valuable tool, but an essential communication life skill.