Friday, September 25, 2009

Me being me

This week has gone quickly and has left me a little knackered. After an eating, sleeping, and TV-watching weekend in Paris, I was thrust headlong back into the grind as I faced three presentations this week. They were all in some way about international human resource management and culture.

At the second presentation, made to a group of recent university graduates working in the oil industry, I spent an hour describing different academic constructs related to culture and discussed how to avoid pitfalls and conflict solely based on differing cultural expectations. I’ve given this talk (what feels like) a zillion times, and I breezed through, peppering the dialogue with examples of cultural gaffes I myself have made*.

After I finished talking, I opened up the floor for questions. In some ways I don’t know why I go through this exercise as there is rarely a question to be had** and I end up standing at the front, silently and desperately pleading for someone else to open their mouth.

And one recent graduate did just that – opened his mouth, I mean. I hadn’t anticipated that my explanation of my own cultural gaffes would actually deny me some credibility as a cultural “expert”***. He asked:

“If you know so much about culture, why do you make mistakes with it yourself?”

Good question, kid.

At the time I breezed off an answer I thought would satisfy the herd, but the question stuck with me. Why do I make the very mistakes I advise others how to avoid?

I think it comes down to emotion. Even if you know the ‘right’ answer or the ‘correct’ behavior in a given situation, when you are feeling stressed or defensive or sensitive, you revert to your core. And often my cultural core is diametrically opposed to the situation with which I am dealing.

So even though I know that raising my voice to a Norwegian will get me nowhere, when I am being told that my visa will take four months and not the promised four weeks to process, I revert to type. I become that stereotypical aggressive American. Even though I know that conflict is not resolved through hard negotiation tactics in Norway, I still use ultimatums as a bargaining chip. This strategy rarely works, but I can’t seem to help myself.

I can’t seem to help myself because, no matter how many layers of other cultures I wrap myself in, at my core, I am what I am and what I always was and what I likely will continue to be.

I think this realization is in some way freeing as I am allowing myself to make the mistakes I know I shouldn’t. But to be any other way wouldn’t be me being me. So I will keep telling others how to avoid cultural conflict, and I will do a pretty good job at avoiding it myself in most cases. But when I slip up, I will permit myself to be wrong and know that it’s okay.

It’s just me being me.
* One of the most important lessons I learned when talking about anything that could be perceived as uncomfortable is that you are safer making fun of yourself and having a group laugh at your own expense than you ever will be trying to use veiled humor directed at the audience. I learned this lesson only after managing to insult about 150 Norwegians with what I thought was a funny anecdote about the perceptions of Norwegians by foreigners. Let’s just say 150 sharp intakes of breath and about as many dirty looks later, I resolved never to make the same mistake again.
** My own take on this is not that there are not questions, but that a Norwegian, no matter how beautiful their spoken English, feels awkward speaking English in front of their fellow countrymen. I sympathize with this as I know the level of panic if I even have to utter one sentence på norsk into a microphone, so I just appreciate it and move on. I still do hold out hope that one brave soul might ask away.
*** I put “expert” in quotes as I am really an expert in nothing but the preparation of Tex-Mex food and celebrity trivia.