In this month’s issue of Taking the Highroad, learn how to reduce causing unintentional stress and conflict to those who are different from you.

California When I was a child I lived in Southern California, not far from the ocean. One of my favorite outings was a trip to the tide pools with my parents. What a wondrous place for a kid! You could walk for hours among the sea life, seeing everything from sea stars to crabs to anemones. All the children and many of the adults knelt over the pools in fascination, stroking the backs of the sea stars and touching the anemones until they contracted. We would laugh with delight and marvel at the watery universes before our eyes. The memory stays strong with me today.

Recently, however, that memory has taken on a darker tone. My husband and I took a trip from Atlanta to Northern California this summer. We were excited to see the wildlife that abounds along the unspoiled coastline north of San Francisco. We went from state park to state park, spotting seals, sea lions, otters, fish, and a plethora of birds along the way. My husband, being an ecology teacher, would pause so we could read each state park sign as we entered. We wanted to ensure we were following the rules and not disturbing the flora and fauna. I’m ecstatic that we did, and here’s why.

Seals haul themselves out on rocks close to the shore to get warm and take vital rest. They are so interesting and so cute lying in the sun; it can be tempting to close in on them and get a better look. That behavior, however, causes the seals great distress. When they see humans coming toward them they look around fearfully, and often jump in the water. They might abandon the haul-out site, and can even unintentionally cause harm to their pups in an attempt to get away.

Seals on RocksSigns at the park gave ample warning to remain a certain distance from the seals, yet time and again on our trip we saw people violating those rules and frightening the animals. Folks had most likely not read the signs and were simply excited to see the seals. Yet the people didn’t recognize the symptoms of stress that the seals exhibited as a result.

Knowledge of the rules of “seal culture” was missing (or in some cases ignored).

Then one day on the same trip we went to a park with tide pools. There were at least two signs that said “Do not disturb tide pool residents in any way.”

Every tide pool species has its place in ecosystem. Moving something (even a small distance) can disrupt the delicate balance and even kill it. I hadn’t thought about my tide pool outings in that way, even as an adult. Had I not read the sign and looked up the information online I might have continued admiring crabs and sea stars by touching them. Almost every adult and child we saw on our trip did just that.

So what does all this have to do with working across cultures? Without intentional education, we can cause harm that we may never even notice. It is not enough to have experience with a culture. We must seek out the rules of how that culture operates so we have a better chance of not violating those rules.

How do we do that? We can ask bold questions such as…

  • What are words, actions, or topics that cause the most offense in this culture?
  • What do I need to be aware of before I enter this place (religious space, someone’s home, etc.)?
  • How would I know if I caused offense or stress to someone in this culture? What can I do to repair the relationship if I do?
  • What is the best way to build trust with teammates from this culture?
  • What is considered disrespectful in this culture? Respectful?
  • What is “normal” in my culture that might be uncomfortable or abrasive to people in this culture? Where am I non-negotiable in my cultural values or practices?

We cannot be afraid to ask, nor can we afford to skip our homework. Do your research, get coaching, interview colleagues. Do what you need to do to understand the rules, because what we don’t know can hurt others, ourselves, our teamwork, and ultimately our fragile world.

We’d love to hear about the cultural missteps you’ve taken, how you got educated, or anything else on your mind!

See you next month. 

Vicki Flier Hudson

Vicki Flier Hudson

Vicki Flier Hudson, Chief Collaboration Officer for Highroad Global Services, Inc. inspires people to leverage the full power of differences. She has helped countless large-sized corporations establish successful operations across the globe and build bridges across cultures, distance, and time.

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