When most people hear that I’m a cross-cultural trainer, they appear slightly dumbfounded. Moving internationally seems as easy as suitcases and a flight these days, and everyone’s doing it. Some of us have already lived abroad before, and we are all living cross culturally every day in Taiwan. Why would we need any cross-cultural training? I understand. Before I became a cross-cultural trainer myself, I didn’t even know cross-cultural training existed as a profession. Growing up straddling the cultures of Taiwan and the United States, then working in the corporate worlds of Tokyo, New York, and Taipei, I’d always thought crossing cultures was something people did naturally when they moved to a foreign land. You move, you adapt, that’s it. What more to it is there? So when I first heard of cross-cultural training, I was skeptical.
What Cross-Cultural Trainers don’t do
Is it about telling people the dos (‘hold business cards with both hands’) and don’ts (‘don’t stand your chopsticks up in a bowl of rice’)? I couldn’t think of anything more tedious than listing out superficially appropriate behaviors for foreigners to follow. That’s what Google and books are for; moreover, teaching people to follow a set of culturally appropriate behaviors seemed to snuff out any room for individual personality and unique perspectives. Do cross-cultural trainers basically tell people how to behave like everyone else? I also imagined abstract educational seminars about that nebulous word ‘culture’ that human resources departments require their managers to attend. It wasn’t until I trained as a cross-cultural trainer myself that I fully realized how transformational it was to understand culture, its process, and its impact more deeply. Whether a seasoned culture crosser or first timer living abroad, these cultural frameworks that we’re all shaped by lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and of others — and that’s invaluable for any social interaction, especially when we are straddling cultures.
Cross-cultural trainers do not advise on culturally appropriate behavior.
Like me, many people might imagine that cross-cultural training involves telling people what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behavior in a foreign culture. In fact, behavior isn’t the focus of cross-cultural training programs at all. As Edward T. Hall’s cultural iceberg illustrates, behavior — along with the food, language, clothing, and other external manifestations of a culture — is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Those surface representations derive from deeply held values, beliefs, and assumptions, which are in turn shaped by history and philosophies, and it is this ‘unseen’ 90% of the iceberg that is the focus of cross-cultural training programs.
Moreover, we don’t just look at the values, beliefs, and assumptions of the host culture; we spend a significant amount of time first looking at the values, beliefs, and assumptions we ourselves hold from our own experiences and upbringings. As though wearing tinted sunglasses, we each walk around with our own set of cultural lenses that ‘color’ our view of the world. Cross-cultural training programs are thus comprised of dynamic conversations and interactive reflections on participants’ experiences to discover the unique composition of values, beliefs, and assumptions that form their personal take on the world. Only when we are clear about our own culture can we look more objectively at another culture’s norms.
Cross-cultural training programs do provide information on how culture works and the cultural adjustment process, as well as historical foundations, business practices, and daily living in the host culture. Yet far from unilateral advice-giving, this information merely fuels the interactive conversations that are the cornerstone of these programs. A program’s success is as much based upon what each participant brings to the table, including a participant’s curiosity and willingness to reflect on their own experiences and to understand another culture from its roots. The more open a participant is to deeper understanding and new ways of seeing things, the more the participant will get out of the program. As psychotherapist Carl Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Next time something about Taiwan frustrates you, ask yourself what could be lying beneath that tip of the iceberg — for Taiwan and for yourself. Or, sign up for a cross-cultural training program at the Center and we can chew on these issues together. We’ll unravel more mysteries about culture and cross-cultural training in upcoming issues — send us your questions. I look forward to enriching cultural conversations with you!
Jane Wang: Born in Taipei and raised bilingually in the United States, Jane W. Wang is a cross-cultural consultant at the Community Services Center and an instructor of Communication and Multiculturalism at Shih-Hsin University in Taipei. She works with expatriate leaders, teams, and families to deepen understanding of Taiwan’s culture for more effective interactions and a successful stay overseas. For more on the Center’s cross-cultural programs, please see: https://www.communitycenter.org.tw/cross-cultural/
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