We were grabbing dinner at the local open-air restaurant on a hot Tanzanian night. My Swedish friend across the table wondered aloud why the waiter had left her bottle top on our table after having opened her coke, wasn’t that rude? While a smile on his face, our Tanzanian friend nicely rested the bottle top back over the opening of her coke bottle and replied, “because now you can cover your coke and keep the bugs out.” Touché.
So often what we label as rude, weird, or annoying about the actions and behaviors of people from different cultures is simply different. When we understand why other people do the things they do, more often than not it makes total sense.
When I work with people traveling internationally, one of the biggest limiting beliefs they have to overcome is “my culture is right, theirs is wrong.”
And it’s not just limited to people traveling to different countries, this same limiting belief pops up when working with people from different cultures or even living next door to them.
It makes total sense that our starting place is “my way of doing this is the right way” because for each of us, wherever we grew up, the way we learned how to do things helped us make sense of the world, it helped us “avoid the anxiety that comes with social chaos” as MIT Sloan Fellows Professor Edgar Schein puts it. The reality is, what we mistakenly dub as “weird, rude, or annoying” ways of doing things are for others what also helps them make sense of the world.
Our cultures are made up of our norms. To each of us our culture is what is normal. So normal in fact, that we do most things without even thinking about it because they are part of our culture, not an innate part of being human. Let’s look at food. When it comes to eating, the times of day you eat, what you eat, and how you eat are all influenced by your culture. Beyond food, this extends to basically everything else we do throughout the day! For example, if the country you grew up in has been mostly literate for more than a century, communicating through writing comes more easily for you than someone who grew up in a country that has historically been illiterate; for them, verbal communication and story telling comes much more naturally.
Maintaining the belief that your culture is better will:
Ensure lasting tension between you and people from other cultures;
Keep you from developing meaningful relationships with people from other cultures;
Prevent you from learning the limitations of your own culture; and
Keep you from being open to new perspectives and ideas, which are critical for long term success (in everything!).
So, the next time you notice yourself letting out an exasperated sigh thinking, “that’s so rude, weird, and annoying,” (cue the eye roll) pause and do two things:
Ask yourself, “I wonder why they do that?”
And if you can, go ahead and just ask them that too in the most curious and respectful tone.
You might just discover a new way of doing something that you’d never thought of. And remember, no culture is better than another, they’re just different!