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I am a localization manager/translator and intercultural consultant living in Berlin (Germany), passionate about languages, cultures, diversity management, body art, dancing, self-empowerment, coaching, effective communication and, last but not least, vegan gluten-free food and good movies.

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

How Halloween costumes, rented bikes and Gina Lollobrigida can help you lowering your cultural blindness score (Yes, you have one and it is better to know that)

Since you are reading this blog, I am sure you are a smart, emotionally intelligent and well-informed person, so could you please explain me the difference between:
- a bike/car you have been owning for the last five to ten years and one you just rented for a two-weeks holiday? 
- the Halloween costume you had on last year for maybe six hours (three of which while being tipsy, oh well) and that favorite sweater that you are going to wear for so many years to come?
- someone nice that you don't know that well that spent three days at your place as a guest and the flatmate/partner you have been living together for the last five years?


[Women wearing witch costumes in the 1910s © Getty Images
It is exactly the same as you wearing your favorite sweater, 
right?]

Would you feel the same sense of ownership while dealing with a rented bike that you have to give back after two weeks and then sayonara!, as you would do with your own bike/car that has so many stories to tell about you?

Would you feel the same sense of authenticity while going around dressed as a vampire, ghost, witch, superhero or monster on All Saints' Eve, as you would do while wearing the sweater that you can wear on every possible occasion?

Would you feel the same sense of familiarity while having someone at your place for a limited time only, and would you treat them exactly in the same way you would do with the person you have been sharing the flat for years?

To be honest?

Most likely, you would not. And you would also consider those questions pretty silly, since it is clear that those situations and scenarios are not on the same level, both practically and emotionally, and can't be really compared.

And yet, think about a human interaction like this one instead:

They - What's your background as a consultant for intercultural communication?
Me - I got a certification in intercultural competence recognized across Europe, I've been leading a multicultural team myself for the last six and half years, I have a migration background myself, both in Italy and in Germany, and on top of that I have been experiencing every single day of the last eight years what does it mean to be an expat. 
They - Do you really think that it still makes a difference? 
Me - Of course, it does. 
They - I mean, I spent [put a limited and sometimes very short amount of time here] in [put a fancy location here] as an [exchange student / visiting expert with someone babysitting me all the time / diplomat that was at the embassy of my own country / consultant in a powerful position with very little contact with the locals] and I didn't feel like people were treating me like a foreigner.

This is something I have to hear, again and again, most of all by well-educated German people with lots of Fernweh and the impression that they know how does it feel to be a foreigner, even if they live in their own country and their experience abroad was temporary.

And every time I have two options:
#1. Smiling politely, leaving the conversation at it and let people in their own cultural blindness,  not only because maybe it is not the right occasion for discussing the topic (think about a birthday party, a Meetup, a social gathering etc), but also because it can actually be counterproductive for them.
Approaching other people's cultural blind spots means generating an emotional earthquake on their side even in the case they should be willing to deal with it, and if those people don't want to face it in the first place, their resistance to the topic would just be reinforced. (Ask any consultant or coach that deals with change management processes, for this matter)
#2. Seeing it as an important chance to make a difference in someone else's life and in the worst case scenario, at least as a chance to train my own maieutics skills and to go all in for a Socratic debate, while encountering a lot of emotional resistance I was not looking for and I am not interested in dealing with for free in my spare time, in order to explain that actually it is the same as making a comparison between a rented bike and your own bike.

Depending on the circumstances, in most of the cases, I go for #1.
Cultural blindness is strongly related to one person's identity, sense of belonging and how she perceives herself and her environment, so it is something to deal with in the most respectful way and within an appropriate communication frame.
And yet, sometimes, I think: "Oh really? That's interesting...".

So here you have what I would say, if I would be interested in dealing with the blind spots and the emotional baggage of culturally unaware people and I should decide to be just as culturally insensitive as they are in that moment and to collect some social bloopers myself. Enjoy!

[Diamond Garden Banquet Hall LLC. in Chicago
with a room rental service 
for weddings, Quinceaneras and other celebrations...
Oh wait, having the time of your life there 
is not the same as spending there every single day of your life, you say?]

Let's me wrap-up this for you, darling, OK?

So you were having an experience abroad:
- for a very limited time;
- under special circumstances;
- with a privileged/well-protected status and strong institutions (schools, universities, corporations, embassies, exchange programs of many types) to back you up;
- while already knowing that you were about to go back to where you were from at some point;
- without really having to integrate yourself in another cultural context in the long run;
- sometimes while not having to learn the language spoken in the country;
- sometimes while not having the need to deal with bureaucracy, daily chores, and regular routine...

And yet you think you know how it is to live abroad for good and to be reminded every single day that you are a foreigner?

How does it feel
- to get asked where are you "actually" from and when are you "going home" at every new social interaction, sometimes many times a day;
- to hear (bad and tasteless) jokes about where you are from spoken out loud in front of everybody by people that merely know you or don't know you at all yet (and that you don't really want to know, at that point);
- to get culturalized, put into a box and stereotyped even if you don't fit those stereotypes at all, just because your passport says you are from country XY;
- to get noticed not for the occasions (99,9% of the times) where you managed to integrate yourself perfectly into a new culture, but for that only rare occasion (0,01% of the times) where you didn't do it so perfectly, even you worked very hard for it;
- and so on, every single day, for years, feeling sometimes like in Groundhog Day?

[Yes, I was born in Italy! 
And so yes, I am for sure just like Gina Lollobrigida,
because in a country with 60 million people, we are just all the same, right?
Look, she was also wearing purple in the 1950s!]

Would you feel home? Welcome? Seen and accepted? Respected?
Would you feel like you have been treated just like everybody else?

As already said, if you don't feel how it is being different, you can't understand it on a deep level.
So don't pretend you can, and follow Mark Twain's precious advice:

It's better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.

This one is dedicated to Max.
Thanks for your questions!

Tags: Diversity, Emotional intelligence, Self-awareness, Being an expat, Intercultural competence, Cultural blindness

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