Learning through our experiences – especially when they happen in cross-cultural contexts – can help us better understand ourselves and our own values.
A clear illustration of the challenges across cultures and genders
A conversation I had recently with a friend brings this point to light. Sharon, an Asian American of Japanese descent, holds her PhD in Intercultural Studies and works with a team to develop curriculum for several major organizations. She is, in many respects, a mentor for me.
Over Japanese-style Bento lunches, Sharon explains to me a challenge she has been dealing with recently as she and a team of four others have been honing the material for a major Christian nonprofit as they seek to implement the curriculum in a number of locations.
The issue was working styles and team dynamics.
“There are three women and two men on our team,” Sharon explains. “Two of the women are Asian Americans. One is Anglo. And the two men are Anglo. I’m discovering even the process to develop this material and bring it to adoption is a cross-cultural learning experience itself.”
Sharon explains that she and the other Asian-American colleague are struggling in a couple areas. Some of it might be gender-related, she admits. “Trying to sort through all the variables itself can be a challenge!”
First, she often feels their contributions are dismissed by the men. Again and again, when the female Anglo teammate would present the same idea, she found the men seemed to pay better attention and give it more consideration.
Second, she felt the Anglo-Americans always needed all the details of the plan spelled out.
“I can see the influences of my Asian upbringing as I work on this team,” Sharon confided. “I tend to look for the more nuanced connections, what’s happening when things are not said, what the real sentiment might be.”
“But I’m finding the Anglo members of my team want the details all spelled out. Sometimes it seems so extreme. I wonder, ‘Can’t they just figure this out?’”
My interpretation and application
As an Anglo myself, I reflected on my past work on teams and in leadership positions. Even though I have had many years of contact with Asian cultures, I realized that, at the core, I am Anglo in my approach. But with a few distinctions.
Having lived in both Japan and China, having familiarity with both languages and cultures, and having worked with international students over the years (many of them Asian), I’ve come to value the unspoken, nuanced approach as well.
Also, I’ve come to see how unnecessary and annoying the “rampant spilling of details” can be. I’ve streamlined my communications a lot since my earlier team experiences.
Still, I thought her perspective intriguing. How often we hear about the Westerner who is confounded by their perceived lack of direct communications by Asians! Hearing the opposite perspective gave me a little chuckle – and triggered my introspection, for sure!
How can you apply this insight?
If you are Asian or Asian descent, you will probably say to yourself, “Well, of course!”
But the lesson here for you would be to try to understand why an Anglo would seek such clarity. In fact, they (we) are designed to communicate directly. We learn that from an early stage: “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”
But if you are an Anglo reading this, the lesson here for you is to recognize that different approaches exist and your way is not the only way! There is a place for nuanced communication as well.
Finally, the key is to always ask yourself three questions:
- What do I make of the situation (or what was said, etc.)?
- What do I think the other person (or people) involved meant?
- How can I close the gap between (1) and (2) so we all benefit?
Sometimes, the issue is just being a better observer and listener. That’s an area in which most of us, for sure, can improve.