I spoke at a conference a couple of days ago and made the point that many of us are unable to see other cultures clearly because we have not seen our own clearly. With our own culture, we are like fish in water. We just don’t notice it or think about it. Our limited awareness of our own culture limits our ability to understand and interact positively with different cultures.
A question was asked about how we can begin to see our own culture more clearly. For Americans, I usually recommend reading American Ways: A Cultural Guide to the United States by Gary Althen and Janet Bennett. The book is written for international students or business people who will be traveling to and working in the United States. Reading a book like this which describes one’s own culture from an outsider’s perspective can help you to see your own culture with new eyes.
Another way to explore cultural differences is to look online for information about appropriate behavior when doing business with people from your own country, whether that is Korea, Brazil, or the U.S. In reading something where others try to explain your culture to outsiders you will notice they mention things that seem perfectly normal and insignificant to you but are carefully explained to outsiders. For example, I just looked at a website explaining American Business customs. It included the following:
The recipient of your (business) card will probably place it into a wallet or in the back pocket of the trousers.
Seeing something common in your own culture described in detail to cultural others should be a clue that other cultures would find that behavior strange and would expect different behavior in their own cultures.
If you do a search about business card etiquette in Asian countries you will find extensive instructions on how to appropriately give and receive business cards as on this site http://www.asianbusinesscards.com/business-card-exchange-etiquette-guide-culture-tips-for-asia/.
Simply learning about the surface level behavior and appropriate etiquette in one’s own country and others is not enough, however, to increase your intercultural competence. It is important to dig into that information and ask questions about the values and beliefs behind these behaviors both in one’s own culture and in other cultures. The Asian worldview is considerably different than the worldview of most North Americans and some of those differences are revealed in how business cards are given and received.
For example, the point is made in the above website about Asian business card etiquette that
In a society where an individual is less important than the group to which he/she belongs, meishi (a Japanese business card) provides access to its bearer’s identity.
Looking at something as simple as business card etiquette can lead to deep reflection about the differences between collective and individualistic cultures and the values and beliefs of each. It can lead to a greater awareness of both positive and negative aspects of one’s own culture as well as positive and negative aspects of other cultures. It can create the opportunity to see the world through other people’s cultural lenses and to see your own culture with new eyes as well.
*Keep in mind that the quality of cultural information on the Internet varies. Don’t assume that everything you read is accurate! Always check more than one source and talk to more than one person from a culture before assuming you have accurate information.