We all seem to know exactly what the French are like, right?  In fact, most of us are experts about pretty much every culture.

How often have you heard these types of phrases from friends, family members or co-workers:

“The Japanese are . . . .” (e.g., are workaholics)

“The French are . . . .” (e.g., snobs)

“The ___________ are . . . .”

In most cases, the person stating such “facts” has spent one week or less in the country—and most often, the capital city, which hardly represents the rest of the population.  In other cases, the person has NEVER even been to the country but is just repeating what someone else “knows.”

It’s hard to believe we have so much accumulated hearsay that we live by as if it were truth.  What are the Japanese really like?  The French?  Americans?

Here are five tips to having a personal experience with another culture and developing knowledge you can be more proud and certain of:

  • Trash the hearsay:  Set aside all the things you’ve heard from the “experts.”  They know little about the culture they pretend to know so well.  Go with your eyes wide open, which leads me to the next tip.
  • Observe:  When you arrive in a foreign country, just observe.  Look at what people are doing as you scurry through the airport.  Look closely. On your way to the hotel, watch the traffic (i.e., How orderly are people driving?  Do they use their horns? Who has the right away and how do they exercise that right?). Look at and listen to how store owners greet (or don’t) you as you enter.  How does the cashier interact with the client? To what degree do people respect the traffic lights and crosswalks? When you’re in the foreign country, the natural thing to do is to look generally at everything, but that doesn’t build knowledge.  Don’t just look around you without really seeing!  Observe the “small” things.
  • Give your observations a narration:  Describe what you are observing as it’s happening:  “In the airport, I see a lot of men going up to others—and me—to ask where they were going.”  “As I was driving toward my destination, I noticed that cars weave in and out a lot and use their horns a lot more than I’m used to.”  “Store employees seem to ignore me when I walk in. They just let me walk and look around without asking if they can help?” This leads to the next step in the process of gaining personal knowledge.
  • Make sense of the patterns you observe as best you can:  What do these observations mean?  What do they tell me about this culture?  Single observations should be filed away somewhere until you have others to corroborate what you observed or not.  But after you’ve observed for some time and begun to put the individual observations into a patchwork of patterns, consider what they might mean.   For example, “Hmm. I noticed that in retail stores I’ve gone into, no one comes up to me and asks if they can help like they do in my country. That could mean they just don’t care, I guess.  Or it could mean they don’t want to bother me. Maybe it means that making money isn’t their number one priority—and if not, I wonder what their priority is?” Reflecting on what your patterned observations might mean results in developing hypotheses.  And at that point, your work has just begun rather than concluded. Hypotheses must be confirmed or disaffirmed—and it is best done by additional observations and asking locals about your interpretations. However, this requires more time in the country, and you might be ready to return home or move on to another country.

So in fact, you might well go home without having drawn any conclusions, without having any sure knowledge of the culture.  Instead, though, you have amassed valuable observations, you’ve given them narrations and sorted them into patterns. You can be satisfied with what you’ve accomplished.

This process of learning “what the French are really like” will serve you well for the future.  Rather than perpetuating myths from hearsay from the self-proclaimed cultural experts, you will have carefully gathered information and know that it is too soon to draw conclusions.  You will have carefully developed patterns and have some hypotheses about what the culture might be like. And in doing so, you will be building a solid case for yourself about“what the __________ are really like.”

If you would like to learn more about how the Kozai Group can help you or your organization with cultural biases, please reach out to us.