There’s a poem about my hometown of NY that begins, “The city orbits around eight million centers of the universe”. I often think that when Billy Collins wrote it, he must have been in a dating state of mind.
Over a decade of dating in this city, combined with an equal amount of time coaching clients on cultural competency, have shown me that, ironically enough, the two are not mutually exclusive. Many lessons learned from dating, or simply relationships in general, will actually help us work more successfully across cultures. Consider the following:
1. No response IS a response.
In dating, silence has become the de rigueur way for many people to communicate lack of interest in meeting a person or seeing them again. The “nothing” of silence is actually considered to be “something”, namely a response in and of itself. Many cultures also use silence as a tool that carries meaning in a communication. It could mean disagreement, acceptance, reflection, or simply that someone doesn’t have an answer (yet). So while we are busy reading other people’s texts, emails, and body language, we need to remember to read the potential meaning in the silence too.
2. What’s “normal” for one person is often not “normal” for another.
Dating is oftentimes a grueling process of finding that person whose notions of values, norms, and acceptable behaviors most closely match our own. In that process, we become privy to the shockingly vast range of “normal” that exists out there in the universe. The same holds true with culture as we realize that what is considered successful communication, efficient decision making, or effective teamwork in one place may not necessarily be considered as such in the nearly two hundred other countries in the world. Increasing our cultural competency involves shifting from the ethnocentric mindset of categorizing something as “normal” into one that gives us permission to see the behaviors of others as equally valid, yet different.
3. Even when we do everything right, it still may not work out.
Even when we bring our A-game to dating — physically, mentally, and emotionally — we still only control one half of the equation. Similarly, when we work across cultures, no amount of preparation, adaptation, or mindfulness can guarantee that we will be successful. Cultures are groups that set norms, and we interact with individuals from these groups who make a wide range of choices based on a complex web of personal values, experiences, personality, and circumstances. In the end, we only control ourselves, and after doing our homework, remaining flexible, and avoiding judgments, one of the best skills we can develop is that of managing the uncertainty surrounding the results.
4. It’s easy to judge – too quickly.
In dating, we allow online profiles or research to inform our opinions and shape our judgments before we even meet someone. With culture we do the same, just substitute the above for the stereotypes we read in books or articles. No matter how much we think we know in advance, it’s never the same as actually meeting in-person or experiencing a situation in the real world. Succeeding in both managing across cultures and dating requires long observation periods to see how people will act and react in a myriad range of circumstances. It’s tempting to skip right to judgments and decisions, but then we deprive ourselves of the critical observation time necessary to build context for sound evaluations.
5. It’s not you, it’s me.
Ah, yes, the infamous dating line that we all know means it’s really you. When it comes to culture, we should say this line a little more often and actually mean it. We unconsciously make assumptions that everyone else plays by our same set of rules, yet we don’t ever take the time to articulate exactly what those rules are. It helps to look inward just as much, if not more, than we look outward when things aren’t working. We can consider not only if we are sending the right messages, but also if we are releasing the right responses, and frame our style for others so they understand how we offer feedback, problem solve, or manage time.
6. It can be exhausting.
Encountering new people or situations, as well as building relationships through seemingly endless conversations over coffee, drink, or dining encounters require a higher amount of mental energy than simply being around those whom we already know. In the former, we have to observe, process and react in a way that may take us outside our personal comfort zone. We use up precious “adaptation energy” and deplete our reserves more quickly than when we work in our own cultural environment because we can’t simply operate on auto-pilot as we experience a wide range of emotions ranging from stimulation to excitement to confusion to frustration. Eventually, in both dating and culture, this process should plateau and consist of smaller ups and downs rather than a rollercoaster ride, and we can re-distribute our energy in a more equitable way.
For all of the similarities, there is one difference. We often hope that when we get the dating “right” we will move on to a relationship or even marriage with that one special person. When we master the skills necessary to succeed in one culture, there are still many more to be conquered. And again we come back to a similarity in that both dating and cultural competency are processes that will undoubtedly involve making a lot of mistakes. When that happens, the best advice is to seek feedback, consider the lessons learned, commit to how we might modify our behavior next time, and then move forward!
This article was created for and originally published by Global Living Magazine in the special edition 20th issue (Sept/Oct 2015). Visit www.globallivingmagazine.com for more information.
Jamie Gelbtuch founded Cultural Mixology in order to serve as a strategic thinking partner for individuals and organizations that are faced with multicultural challenges. Through coaching, training, mentoring, and consulting, she equips clients with tools to flourish during cultural transitions. Jamie is fluent in English, Spanish, and French, has a working knowledge of Portuguese, and is a novice at Arabic. She has also lived abroad and traveled extensively throughout five continents. Jamie is always looking for new and innovative ways to help herself and others manage the complexity, uncertainty, and personal challenges presented by living or working in an international environment. Connect with Jamie at her website or on Twitter.