I have a Jewish-American composer friend who used to visit me when I lived in Switzerland, and on one occasion he came down to the farm I cultivated in Italy.
Frank is a lovely and highly intelligent man, with wide experience of travelling the world and, of course, working with people from many different backgrounds for his Broadway shows and musicals.
If there was one person I could think of as having both the drive to understand cultural differences and the broad knowledge of how people behave differently in other cultures it is Frank. He has even written musicals that portray the clash and partial resolution of these differences in thrilling and inspiring form.
However, when he came to Switzerland—and later to Italy—it always intrigued me that the usually very sharp-witted Frank was slightly off beam in the quick conclusions he drew from what he saw.
1. DON’T JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS
In Zürich, for example, Frank would be puzzled when he met a new group of Swiss people, each one of whom would take time to shake his hand and introduce themselves formally by giving their surnames, and expect him to do the same.
Frank always introduced himself with his Christian name. He also very rarely shook hands, preferring a pleasant smile and perhaps a joke to break the ice.
Seeing his hosts looking slightly uncomfortable with this manner of introduction, Frank immediately assumed that the Swiss were overly formal and ‘Germanic’.
I told him this was not the case: the hand-shaking and offering of surnames were just a Swiss way of showing healthy democratic respect for everyone present—not an example of Prussian coldness. But I’m not sure Frank was ever convinced.
It was the same when he visited our Tuscan valley. Frank used to observe that our farmer neighbours regularly left baskets of fresh vegetables and flowers outside our door at the end of the day. Sometimes they even hung a skinned, cleaned, and partially chopped rabbit in a plastic bag on a nail near the doorbell (out of reach of any interested dogs or cats).
He concluded from this that our neighbours would call in our debt to them at some future date. So much free produce, he reasoned, could not possibly come without some sort of strings attached.
2. LOOK MORE CLOSELY
Again, I had to explain to him that the giving of fresh vegetables was a normal reflex on the part of neighbours living in a communal, natural setting. We exchanged whatever we had that was extra to our needs because that was the way of the Italian countryside at the time.
You never knew what natural emergency could come along (we had severe snow one winter that blighted many of our olive trees). Being bound in mutual obligation to help each other out was an essential aspect of survival. It also meant that the good stuff didn’t go to waste.
However, try telling a seasoned New Yorker that gifts can be quite innocent and without obligation!
He was once standing beneath the loggia at the entrance to the farmhouse when one of our neighbours came by with a bundle of freshly cut artichokes and a basket of figs. I could hear Frank talking to the farmer and a disjointed discussion unfolding, in English and Italian, until I came along to smooth the whole thing over.
It wasn’t Frank’s fault. His city environment made him suspicious of unearned gifts. As I moved around the world to places where I didn’t feel as safe as I did in the Italian countryside, I caught echoes of Frank’s suspicions in my own reactions.
3. AVOID ASSUMPTIONS
In countries as diverse as Myanmar/Burma, the Philippines, Brazil, and Egypt, I assumed from very little evidence that I was being taken for a ride or being put into an awkward position by little gifts that simply came from the heart.
At such moments, I also rushed in with my assumptions—even though I was armed with plenty of cross-cultural experience. Instead of standing back a moment and reflecting on what I was being offered, or on the way it was being offered, I jumped to conclusions.
I suspect this is something everyone is tempted to do when they are travelling. If you don’t know a country or a culture and are visiting for the first time, you are very quick to see things that can give you cultural clues to what is going on. It’s just a short step from this to arriving at conclusions without noticing that we are simply feeding our preconceptions.
I remember my first visit to Seoul. I had been told that South Korea was a very Confucian society where men tended to dominate both in the family and in business. I could understand this because I had studied some Korean history and culture. I knew from my reading how deeply rooted Confucian belief was in Korean life and society.
So every time I saw a man taking the lead in a Seoul business meeting with other women managers present, or a man walking a few steps ahead of his wife and children in the Seoul subway, I ticked a box in my head that read ‘Confucian’ or ‘typical Korean male’.
4. LEARN TO STRATEGISE
You can therefore imagine my surprise when I went to a family dinner in a private house in Seoul, a rare honour for a foreigner. I found the male head of the family cooking in the kitchen, carrying dishes in and out to the table, and being soundly told off by his wife in front of everyone for forgetting some ingredients at the supermarket on his way home.
Little by little, I discovered that my limited Korean knowledge was a dangerous thing. It had encouraged me to rapidly apply my cultural learning without noticing the lack of connection between what I knew intellectually and what was facing me in reality.
South Korean men may have played the role of patriarchs in public, but at home it was the women who were in charge and—as I soon discovered—also ran the household finances.
This is where cultural intelligence comes in. It’s not enough to be highly motivated to learn, or to have acquired cultural knowledge. You must also strategise how to apply that understanding in action.
This often means reflecting upon what you experience in an unfamiliar culture, and holding off your assumptions until you have time to analyse and possibly adjust your behaviour to what is in front of you. Sometimes a little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing.
This is an extract from my forthcoming book, Bamboo Strong – Cultural Intelligence Secrets To Succeed In The New Global Economy.