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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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Friday, October 20, 2017

The very first, totally surprising question you should ask yourself, for improving your intercultural communication skills

Would you ever get mad at someone that should meet up with you for now showing up, if you should not be able to give them clear directions on where you are and how to get to you?

Just imagine the scene: Someone calls you on the phone (or even funnier, you call them), they agree on meeting up, they ask you for directions and yet you want them to move, but you either don't know where you are and/or you consider where you are as so clear and universally accepted, that you are not able to see whatsoever need to provide any kind of explanation about this natural and obvious piece of information that, for sure, everyone is already aware of.

"Gee, I mean, it is just clear where I am, isn't?
Everyone should know it and come to me without me explaining it, right?!"

["Why then the world's mine oyster / 
Which I with sword will open"
William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor
Image: © Stella Gangster]

Who would ever behave like this, you ask?
Well, we all do. Some of us do this all the time, without even noticing it, and some of us do it while being put under pressure or in extremely stressful or emotionally charged situations.
When: at work, in the relationships (this is the topic for another blog post...) with our loved ones, and above all while practicing intercultural communication. 

How?


I am glad that you asked.
Because this means that you are ready to discover the very first question you should ask yourself, for improving your intercultural communication skills.

People ask me often if, while working as an intercultural consultant, I know everything about every possible culture on planet Earth. Even if it would be fascinating and very good for my ego to say otherwise, the answer is: nope. 
And I don't need to. This is not the point, in interculturality. It is actually a very common misconception.

While thinking that you have to know everything about the "other" (your colleague, your significant other, someone from another culture or with a different background/way of life), you are focusing on them and where they are, instead of understanding that, first of all, you have to know yourself and where you are.

[A pretty amazing picture, right?
It is. And yet, it is not the center of the universe.
And the same applies to you.
Image: © NASA]

Ignoranti quem portum petat nullus suus ventus est.
(If you don't know what port you are sailing to, no wind is favorable)
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, also known as Seneca the Younger [c. 4 BC-AD 65]
Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, LXXI

In other words, you are playing the center of the universe and focusing on the distance and on the length of the stretch that separates the people you are interacting with, without questioning where you are in the first place. Like, if you were the center of the system and you would not be expected to move, and you would explore something strange and somehow weird, so different from your logical and reasonable way of being and thinking.

Spoiler alert: it will never work, that way.

If you want to go from A to B and to fill the existing gap between both, you should know exactly where both points are. This way, you can think about the best way to reach your destination and how to make the trip pleasant and successful.
And you could also decide that, actually, you prefer going somewhere else. Everything is possible.

Intercultural communication is not that different.
In order to find a common ground with someone else, instead of expecting them to behave like you want them to and how you think they should, and to judge them immediately if they don't, you should, first of all, ask yourself "Where am I, right now? Where I am, waiting for them?".
Otherwise, you are again taking A (yourself) for granted, and you are expecting them (B) to fill the gap, without even knowing where you are exactly. How can they know it and come to you, if you don't know it yourself in the first place?

["Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens", said Jimi Hendrix,
just like Stephen R. Covey [1932-2012], while quoting Epictetus, said
"You have two ears and one mouth. Use them accordingly".
Yes, Epictetus and not Susan Cain. Trust me]

The first step, while practicing intercultural communication, is not about diving into all that weird and interesting and sometimes shocking information about all those exotic and colorful and beautiful places and cultures, so far away from you, the center of the universe. 
The first step is diving into your own culture and learning who you are, what your values, ideas, expectations, boundaries, and beliefs are, and how your cultural perspective and filters are applied automatically to every situation, even when you think that your perception is neutral. Even more, in all those deceptive cases.
You should know what you consider appropriate and what you expect, what you think is normal and preferable, in your opinion, and why.

It is not easy. It is hard work, sometimes hurts and it can be confusing.
Furthermore, it is almost impossible to do it completely by yourself, because it means going behind your cultural blindness and making visible something that, for years and sometimes for your entire life, has been invisible: your own cultural bias and values and accepted stereotypes, the product of  the interception between your personal story and your socialization.

Still, with some help and while taking a certain amount of emotional stress into account, it is an empowering journey absolutely worth it.
While knowing where you are, you have very good chances to find a way to meet people where they are and to interact with them at a new level.

This one is for Philipp.
I am sure that, from now on, buying shoes will never be the same for him, and he knows what I mean.

Tags: Intercultural communication, Gap in communication, Changing perspective, Self-awareness, Quotes

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