Kiss me please…
It was probably one of my first encounters with differences in culture; the difference in how we greet each other. In some cultures, like my own, it is common to kiss someone on the cheek, 2, 3 and sometimes 4 times, or even more. In other cultures, it is more common to embrace and hug, bow or shake hands, or even use other ways of greetings.
In one of my first meetings with someone from the US, I was not prepared to be pulled into the big bear hug. I stood ready to shake a hand and plant a kiss on the cheek. Instead, I ended up being pulled over, losing my balance while my hand landed quite uncomfortably somewhere between our bellies, meanwhile planting the kiss I was meaning to give, on his ear.
Still, I love cultural differences and am fascinated by them. Why? Because they are often so impossible to grasp. The values that drive our cultural behaviors are often difficult to see. And when we look at the world through the lens we grew up with, we might end up seeing things that we do not understand. At all.
In most, if not all cultures I have lived and worked in, I have experienced moments of feeling completely at loss. Or foolish. Or frustrated. Some interactions were painful, some were hilarious. But all of them were very valuable to broaden my lens; to gain a new perspective at the world around me.
When we moved to the Middle East, we both learned that trust is not build in the same way as we were used to. Building trust in the Netherlands is very much based on your merits, on how you do your work and how you behave at work. If you are good at what you do, you are worthy to gain respect and trust. And that is what builds a relationship.
Building trust in the Middle East is relationship based; we first build a relationship and then trust will follow. This means there is much more emphasis on the personal aspects of life before we get to business.
And so, I changed my general “good morning” that I was used to when walking into the office in Amsterdam, into little chats and interest about their personal life. From a Dutch point a view maybe not very efficient, it could take me more than one hour to get to my desk! But from the Middle East point of view this was well appreciated.
I had broadened my lens: not all cultures are the same when it comes to building trust and relationships.
In China, I learned about direct and indirect communication. In the Netherlands we are quite direct in how we communicate. When we are asked something, it is clear what we are asked about. And when we say “yes or now” it’s clear for the receiver what we mean. China is quite the opposite, as I found out soon. A question can imply many more things, and sometimes I felt unsure what they were really asking me about. And the one moment where I was sure my reply to a manager was clear – “Sorry, but I will not be able to do that for you”, it turned out she heard something completely different. More in the line of: “I cannot yet commit to do what you ask, but I will think about it and very likely I will do it, yes”.
I had broadened my lens again: not everybody says what they think and mean, and not every culture understands that what I say, is what I mean. Getting confused?
And now here we are, in Bosnia Herzegovina. A country that has quite a different culture from ours. And yet….it does feel more familiar. Closer to home. Closer to what I know. How is that possible?
Then I realize: perhaps this is what broadening my lens has resulted to. To be able to feel at home in different countries and different cultures than your own.
And the awkward kissing? Over the years I stopped that practice and now I just give a hug.
So be prepared!