Once Upon a Time in Cultureland…
“Cultureland”… what a magical concept! For me, it expresses the essence of the international experience that you and I share, no matter where we are in the world. It reflects a common expat language, no matter our backgrounds. Today we follow the reflections of Eva Antza, a Greek expat in Norway, whose exploration of cultural intelligence has helped to make sense of her experience in “Cultureland”. This is a story beyond the two cultures discussed and I believe many of the insights will resonate with all expats.
Recently I had to give a short speech at one of our company’s monthly after-work events. Getting on stage was not the issue –performing for seven years as part of a theatrical team in Greece has given me the confidence I need to step on a stage. However, something was different. I was very aware of how different I was to my audience. I had to perform in English (not my native language) and in front of people I didn’t know, who shared a culture different to mine.
My approach was to try and explain myself first. I spoke of my nationality and extroversion so that the audience would have a broader view of the person standing in front of them. Maybe I just needed to justify my “Grrrrrreek” accent in order to feel more comfortable.
Why did I feel the need to explain myself? And why do many of us feel we need to justify who we are when we interact with different cultures?
For many years after my expatriation from Greece to Norway, I faced difficulties with understanding people and being understood. As I mentioned in my speech “being a Greek and an extrovert in Norway can be bad for your social image”. I took it for granted that everyone socialised the way I did. For example, I didn’t realise that talking to strangers is considered impolite in many cultures and this led to many awkward moments. In my initial years as an expat, I frequently felt sad, confused and rejected.
In an attempt to understand the way I was feeling, and how others might perceive me, I started studying cross-cultural communication and intercultural management. Here, at last, is where I found some answers!
How to navigate Cultureland
When people from different countries interact, they project perceptions and feelings formed by their native culture. If we don’t have a basic knowledge of what culture is and how it affects our personality we will tend to get offended or feel like an outcast (as I did), or even unintentionally insult those who don’t share our values (perhaps I did this too!).
Cultural intelligence can be broadly broken into 3 sub-dimensions:
- Cultural knowledge refers to our ability to understand what culture means and how it can affect our behaviour;
- Cultural skills describes the ability to learn from interactions with others, to expand our understanding of diversity and its consequences, and to modify our behaviour to fit a specific situation;
- Cultural metacognition is what helps us to better understand and be understood. It occurs when we reflect on the role that culture plays in explaining our own behaviour and consciously think about using different ways of communicating when interacting with individuals from different cultural backgrounds.
Cultural intelligence is the competence each and every one of us needs to improve our interpersonal skills within a multicultural set-up.
So what’s the morale of this story set in Cultureland?
My expat experience taught me the importance of learning about a culture and its communication style even before expatriating. Of course, much of the learning will happen when you arrive – which is why it helps to remain open-minded and compassionate when you don’t understand the local culture or perceive “negative” cultural aspects. Happiness in Cultureland, I believe, comes when we are able to understand a culture with its people’s eyes.
Putting aside our perception filters will broaden and expand our understanding and get us closer to our fellow human beings, especially those from another culture.
As a result, our relationships will deepen and our acceptance of diversity will bring us together as we live happily ever after in Cultureland…
Adapted with permission from “Meanwhile in Cultureland” by Eva Antza.
How do you navigate your Cultureland? What answers have you found to help you have a happier expat experience? Feel free to share below.
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