Observing carefully is an important part of navigating a new environment and culture.

Look at the picture below for about 5 seconds.

Now, cover the picture with something, and tell me what you saw (no cheating! ☺).

A house?  An opening?  A mountain? Grass?  Some doors?

If you are like most people, those are the kind of things you probably remember seeing—the obvious things.  

What we see generates much of the basis of what we learn about where we are.  And that’s often the problem. Once our brain sees the main elements in the picture, it usually stops “looking”—even if we are exposed to the same scene over and over.  The reason for that is economics. Our brains are programmed to help us survive, and so it quickly tries to ascertain the major elements of our context to help us survive in that environment.  If the big picture our brain quickly takes in seems adequate for that purpose, we stop looking; that is, we stop seeing.  Why look further if the details aren’t going to increase our chances for “survival”?

Well, because survival is not an either/or option.  Survival is just another word for adaptation, and there are many levels of adaptation from very basic to very sophisticated.

In the picture, a very basic level of adaptation would be at the level of seeing the main elements—the house, the mountains, the grass.  That’s akin to seeing in the new culture that there are stop lights on the roads, people drive on the left side of the road, etc. Obeying those rules will keep you alive but it doesn’t mean you will know what to do to adapt to the more refined rules of the culture.

Seeing and knowing the details increases the sophistication of our ability to adapt.  We become more able to navigate the nuance aspects of the environment.

See if you can answer these questions without looking back at the picture:

  1. Were there steps in the picture?  How many if so?
  2. What did the main building material appear to be?
  3. Was the wall of the house a uniform color?
  4. What was on the right of the picture?
  5. Was there a garden wall?
  6. Was there a shed-like building in the picture?
  7. Were there drains from the rain gutters?  What part of the wall were they on?

The answers to these questions only come from observing carefully and taking more time to see things in the same picture.  Observing carefully is an important part of the training spies receive—because they are often required to navigate a very nuanced environment and their survival can literally depend on what they learn from seeing.

Experiencing a new culture is much the same.  We enter the new culture as a foreigner—a “spy.”  The less we see, the more mistakes we will make.  We must train our eyes to see the details.  A spy walks into a building and immediately begins looking at anything that might relate to staying alive—where the exits are, who’s in the room that might be a threat, places to hide if necessary,where cover is inside if necessary, etc.  It’s a “defensive” strategy to avoid bad things. A spy also notices how others act, who seems to get what they want and why, what to say, how to say it, and so on. It’s an “offensive” strategy.

As a visitor to a foreign country, we might not need to know a high level of detail, but the more we need to integrate into the culture (i.e., an expat), the more detail we need to avoid bad things (i.e., getting fired, uncooperative colleagues, inefficient time management, etc.) and have good things happen (i.e., good performance review, gaining others’ cooperation, good time management, etc.)

So take another five seconds and look at the picture again.  What do you see this time?

Seeing the details is simply a matter of training and practice.  And the best thing of all is you can practice those skills in your own culture during the course of your normal, daily routines.

For more information about how the Kozai Group can help your organization with cultural issues, please reach out here.