After years of teaching and training on what happens between cultures, I just had a blinding realization I’d somehow missed: When people hear the words, “It’s cultural,” they frequently think what’s written above. “This [culture/custom/person] is crazy, rude, and just generally makes no sense, but I’m not allowed to object. I have to put up with it — at least during this workshop — even though it makes me angry inside.” Let me respond: No, no, no! This outcome is the product of very inferior intercultural training. Apologies if you’ve been through this!
I’ve seen three levels of training purporting to help people with encounters between themselves and “others,” and they might be classified as follows. Level 1: “They stand on their heads and eat radishes; it’s weird, but you have to be respectful.” (People writhe in their seats and wait for the break.) Level 2: “Here’s the historical and social context; now you can understand why they stand on their heads and eat radishes.” (Some will still be checking their watches, but others will be mildly interested, or even intrigued — at least some pertinent information is being given.)
But Level 3 is different: “What would make you stand on your head and eat radishes, thinking it was perfectly normal?” To momentarily feel someone else’s worldview within oneself can be an amazing experience, and it can happen quickly, giving lie to the common belief that such trainings must be long to be effective. Here’s the commercial, odd for a blog, but appropriate here: To experience a shift of vision that might let you see through someone else’s eyes, come to “Communicating across Cultures,” available at Light Upon Light this fall.
Of course, great books and movies can also induce this awakening shift of vision — the difference here is that you experience it with others and explore the experience in a facilitated setting. “You just gave the only diversity workshop I’ve ever been to where everyone didn’t go away mad,” an African-American friend and colleague told me on our way out of an interactive training I’d given for about 100 people. Even better, the fluid and negotiable space where cultural maps overlap can be remarkably creative. Because where different sets of rules and ideas of reality meet, no automatic pilot setting will work. To have a successful outcome, we have to be wide awake.