Monthly Archives: September 2011

Cultural Misunderstandings… can you relate?

Guest post by Stephen Milner

Some time ago I found myself working in Bucharest, Romania. It wasn’t that long after the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu and the culture in which I found myself living was very alien to me. McDonalds had not even opened there yet. Thankfully I was working with quite a few British Ex. Pat. who could point me in the right direction in finding my way around.

After being there for a few weeks I’d got myself an apartment near the centre, it had good Metro and Tram links and wasn’t very far away from The Dubliner, The Irish pub in Bucharest. It dawned on me quite early on I needed to get some Laundry done, so I asked some of the Ex. Pat. community where to go. Easy, they said, about 300m past The Dubliner, on the same side of the road was an excellent laundrette.

That evening I set off with my bag of Laundry, and exactly where it had been described was a Laundrette. I went in, and though I didn’t speak Romanian, I had troubled myself to learn one or two words.

“Bună seara,” I announced as I walked in and smiled.

The woman behind the counter replied with a long string of Romainan that meant nothing to me. I smiled again, opened my bag and placed the laundry on the counter. The woman separated all the clothes into differing types, detailing each item in a notebook. When the itemisation was complete the woman began another long string of Romanian. It was clear she wanted something.

I got out my money, and asked her how much. She wagged her finger at me, she didn’t want paying. I explained that I didn’t understand, and more Romanian issued forth. She repeatedly tapped the the notebook, her finger on the price. She must want paying! I couldn’t see the amount written clearly so I took the notebook to turn it round to read it. The woman grabbed the notebook and a wrestling match began over the counter for possession of the notebook.

It was during this tug of war that several thought passed through my mind. The first thought was that most of my clothes were in this woman’s possession, the second thought was that I was in this situation way above my head and finally I vowed that the next time I was going to do something “new” in an unfamiliar culture I would make sure I discussed it with someone from that culture, rather than an Ex. Pat.

Finally I decided to give up. I let go of the book, apologised in my broken Romanian and decided that I would simply leave, and come back tomorrow with one of the Romanians I worked with to explain the situation, and find out what was wrong.

The apology worked a treat. The woman calmed down, and beckoned me back with her arm. She picked up a pen, and pretended to sign the book. And then it dawned on me. I had to sign. In fact, signing for just about everything, I very soon came to realise, is part of the culture in Romania. Thankfully a positive response to a polite apology is also part of the culture as well.

The next day, after everyone had had a good laugh at the situation, I made sure I learned enough about the language and the culture to be polite and respectful to others. Something I never regretted doing.

Stephen Milner is an experienced board director and inspirational leader with energy, enthusiasm and a passion for generating business growth in several functions including IT/IS, e-commerce, logistics, supply chain and retail.  You can reach Stephen through his LinkedIn profile here.

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Introducing the USA

The US is one of the countries that’s profiled in the Global Coach Center Academy within the course “Living and Working in the USA” In this post we interview one of the course’s co-trainers on some of the most interesting tidbits on the US.

Jennifer Kumar, cross-cultural coach, is the co-creator of two cross-cultural training programs: “Chasing the American Dream: From Take Off to Landing” a comprehensive pre-departure preparatory course for students planning to study in US and “Living and Working in USA” – an online multi-media cross-cultural course for those planning to live, work and study in America.

Global Coach Center Blog (GCC Blog):  What would be 1 to 3 tips you’d give to someone who is moving to the US?

Jennifer For short or long stays in United States of America, there are a few etiquette rules that will be helpful for a wide variety of situations. These tips have been selected based on some of the cross-cultural misunderstandings I have coached foreigners adjusting to American culture in.

  • Tipping

There are many service professionals in USA who require to be tipped. Not leaving a tip will be offensive and is rarely if ever done even by Americans. A 15% tip is given to wait staff at restaurants that serve you at your table, restaurant home delivery drivers, hairdressers, barbers and taxi drivers. If the service was exemplary, leave 20%, if it could have been better leave 10% and if it was horrible leave two cents (two pennies). This communicates you have not forgot to tip, but that the service was pathetic. Tips are calculated based on the total of the bill before tax is added. Check your bill as some restaurants add in gratuity. In such cases, additional tips can be left if the service was exceptional. For other service professionals like bell hops, coat check attendants and valet parking attendants ask your trusted American friend as this can vary from place to place.

  • Greetings

Generally, when passing strangers on the street, someone will smile and ask “How are you?” Greetings may be more common in smaller towns than big cities. Americans do not expect long answers to this. An answer of “Fine, and you?” suffices. Don’t forget to smile. It will put Americans at ease. Some Americans feel uncomfortable if a greeting is without a smile and may ask, “Is everything alright?” If this happens, one can answer, trying to smile, “Yes, I am thinking about what I have to do today. I hope I can finish it all!” Attaching such an answer to work, Americans will understand the upset or stressed look on your face and generally will not ask more probing questions.

  • Eating Out

If your American friends or coworkers ask you to join them for lunch or dinner, assume you will pay your own bill. This is called ‘going Dutch,’ and is quite common. Unless the person inviting you insists on paying (even after you politely refuse and attempt to pay for yourself); you will pay for yourself and your own tips. Expecting your American colleague to pay for you may make them think you like them romantically; especially if you are the opposite sex; which must be avoided at all costs, especially if the person asking you to join is your coworker.

These three tips can be encountered any day whether an expat worker, international student or trailing spouse trying to fit in and socialize in American culture. If you’d like to learn more about American professional, on-the-job etiquette, social and cultural etiquette look into the course “Living and Working in USA”; a multimedia cross-cultural training with video, podcasts, worksheets and self-introspective activities. This course is designed to expose you to various elements of American culture and compare your cultural traits to those of Americans to understand how you will be able to fit in and make the best impression.

 

 

 

The low point of a Culture Shock experience – judging the other

In our day-to-day life we often pass judgments on other people without even noticing that we do.  We judge and we compare ourselves to others.  We compare achievements; we compare appearance; we compare education and intellect; we even compare social behavior and social acceptance.  Remember Susan Boyle?  Remember how everyone judged her by what she looked like, by what romantic experience she had (or didn’t have), and by the dream she dared to have (in her age and with her looks!).

It’s similar with cultures.  We judge each new culture and its people from the point of view of how it compares to our own.  That especially becomes true if are in the grips of Culture Shock and nothing is going right.  However, each comparison is ultimately an illusion – an illusion that creates either a superiority or inferiority complex.  Both these complexes contribute to misunderstandings between people; prevent them from truly knowing each other, and make it this much harder to build bridges and friendships.  If you judge someone to be better than you, how easy is it going to be for you to establish the connection?  Or, if you judge that person to be worse than you, would you even want to make a connection?  The process of judging doesn’t only make you feel bad, but it also robs you of an opportunity to open your mind and soul to an experience that can change your life.  It stops you from enjoying new things from an “uncluttered” — from judgments — perspective.

Being in judgment is one of the horsemen of apocalypse as identified by Dr. John Gottman in his research on successful marriages  and in his book, 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.  Gottman says that allowing this horseman to run rampant and allowing it to persist in a marriage pretty much dooms the marriage.   It’s similar with cultures.  If you keep judging a culture and its people, you’ll never “make friends” with it/them and, thus, you’ll never adjust enough to live a happy life there.

So stay judgment-free.  Consider everyone and everything as it comes into your life – new, exciting, and full of possibilities to explore.

And if you need any help with this and with Culture Shock, have a look at our Culture Shock Tool Kit E-book where we offer 3 tips on how to manage Culture Shock (some tips are based on Dr. Gottman’s research).  Available in English, Russian, Spanish, and French!

Change – what’s it good for?

As expatriates when we move from country to country we experience a lot of change.  At first it’s quite natural to reject most of it because homeostasis (the tendency to maintain the system the way it has been) is a very strong universal force, especially for humans.  Yet one of the gifts of that imposed change is that we can now give consideration to things that lay outside of everything we are used to – and try them on just the same way we’d try on a new piece of clothing we’d never thought we’d wear.

As with that new piece of clothing, sometimes there are surprises.  That thing we’ve never done in our lives may become our next favorite experience, business idea, hobby, habit, a memory to look back to, etc.  Imagine for a moment what you would have missed if you never moved.  What things would you have never seen and what things would you have never experienced?  And now imagine what you have seen and experienced as a result of every move.  How many more new things are out there for you?

Someone once said that “life is always offering us new beginnings, it’s up to us whether to take them or not.”  I don’t remember who said it, but it’s an empowering way to look at what’s available to us at every moment of every day.  And especially to those of us who get this incredible opportunity of imposed change.

So here is a short exercise that will help take advantage of change:

Step 1. List everything that’s new to you.  Take a few days to compile the list.  Note that you may be adding to that list as you go through the weeks and months of your expatriation.

Step 2.  From the above list, choose a few things you’d like to try.

Step 3.  List ways, in which the things from Step 2 can help you grow and evolve. 

How did it go?  What part of this experience can you share with others?

This process of taking advantage of change is an excerpt from the Global Coach Center Adjustment Guide E-course available at the Global Coach Center Academy.