Mindfulness and Cross-Cultural Skills
FINDING HER FEET Safiyah was a twenty-year-old Muslim exchange student from Malaysia, on her first visit to Australia. On Safiyah’s first day in Sydney she dressed carefully, wearing an especially pretty hijab, and walked from her lodgings down to the nearby shopping mall. Wanting a few personal items, she entered a convenience store and gathered them, then went to the counter to pay. The shop assistant was busy solving some problem with the electronic till, and there was a young man ahead of Safiyah in the line. As she waited patiently behind him, Safiyah became aware of something deeply disturbing about his appearance. Even from behind him she could see that he was unshaven, and his hair was long and unkempt. He was poorly dressed, in a rather grubby sleeveless shirt and khaki shorts. Worst of all, he had no shoes on—his feet were bare!
Safiyah was aghast. Then, to her astonishment, she saw that the man was holding in his hands a huge box of chocolates that he clearly intended to purchase. The shop assistant finished her work on the till and priced the box of chocolates. “Twenty-two ninety- five,” she said. The man drew out a brand-new leather wallet from the hip pocket of his shorts and pulled out a gold Visa card. The transaction was quickly completed. As the man waited for his receipt, he looked around the store. He must have noticed Safiyah staring at him, because as he turned to go, he said, in a voice that was puzzled rather than aggressive, “Are you all right?” The shop assistant and other customers turned to look. Safiyah muttered, “Yes . . . sorry.” She was deeply embarrassed.
What had gone wrong for Safiyah in the store? There is a general
difference in the way Malaysians and young Australians dress to go out in public. Untidy appearance in shops would be much less common in Malaysia than in Australia, but the element that made the difference extreme in this case was the Australian man’s bare feet. In Malaysia it is assumed that the only reason a person might have bare feet is because he or she can’t afford to buy shoes. In Australia and a few other countries, wearing no shoes, especially in summer, is considered comfortable, even fashionable, by many young people. In Malaysia, the man’s appearance might denote a down-and-out or beggar. No wonder Safiyah was astonished to see the young man buying expensive chocolate; but in fact he might well have been a privileged, wealthy student.
In this chapter we look at how our cultural norms help but also hinder us in our dealings with others who are culturally different, by providing a “cultural cruise control” to guide our actions. We show that it is often necessary to break out of our cultural cruise control by practicing mindfulness, a kind of thoughtful attention to cues provided by what we experience, and as a result to develop new cross-cultural skills. The combination of knowledge (see Chapter 2), mindfulness, and cross-cultural skills is the basis of cultural intelligence.
Cultural Cruise Control
A good way of thinking about this is through the use of the term “script.”1 In the theater, a script tells the actor what he or she is supposed to say and sometimes how it should be said. In cultural rituals such as initiation ceremonies the script is often precise. But other scripts allow for individual interpretation (see discussion of “tight” versus “loose” cultures in Chapter 2).
There are, for instance, scripts for Americans and scripts for Chinese. For example, the workplace script of an American may allow her to be playfully disrespectful to a superior, but it would never be so for a Chinese. In the case at the beginning of this chapter, the scripted dress code for Malaysians going shopping is very different from that for young Australians.
Norms and scripts help us by telling us what to do. They prescribe patterns of behavior we feel comfortable with because we observe other members of our in-group practicing them. The real problems occur when the norms and scripts of one culture clash with those of another. This is because, in order to interact, we must not only act out our own scripts but also make sense of others’ actions based on their scripts. To do this we
have to break out of our scripted behavior and switch off our cultural cruise control. As Safiyah found, this is especially difficult in our initial experiences in a new culture.
Cultural cruise control means running your life on the basis of your built-in cultural assumptions. We call it cruise control because people let it happen automatically, without thinking about it. But it can be damaging because of the way it causes them to ignore other cultural signals.
In the case that opened this chapter, Safiyah is operating on cultural cruise control with regard to Malaysian conventions about dress. New to a different culture, she initially finds it impossible to move outside her standard assumptions that prescribe behavior in her culture and that label others according to how they dress. In the coming days she may be able to exercise the principles we describe in this chapter, get out of cultural cruise control, gain better insight into the norms of her Australian hosts, and improve her interactions with them. She needs to step aside as best she can from her own biases, observe what is going on around her without judgment, and talk to others in her new culture. She needs to tell herself, “I’m not in Kuala Lumpur now.” By listening and learning, she can greatly improve her relationships in her new country. And she can do so without having to shed her own shoes, or her hijab!
Mindlessness To develop cultural intelligence, you need to be able to suspend cultural cruise control and develop an alternative state of being called mindfulness.2 A good starting point to understanding mindfulness is to examine its alternative—mindlessness—in the everyday activity of driving a car.
Driving is a complex skill, but we humans have learned to simplify it by developing sequences of complex actions that we perform competently without paying conscious attention. When driving, we can almost unconsciously steer, avoid obstacles, operate direction indicators, and brake when appropriate. While we drive we can simultaneously listen to the news on the radio, reflect on the day’s work, plan the evening meal, have a conversation with a passenger, and even, in familiar territory, forget about navigating the car. Have you ever had the experience of arriving at your home in your car after following a familiar route and noting with surprise, “I’m here! How did I get here? I guess I was thinking about something else!”?
Mindlessness is not necessarily negative—in driving it simply means
we drive without having our minds fully engaged on the job. If we can do so safely, why not? Mindlessness has advantages. It enables us to do more than one thing at a time, to ignore much of what goes on around us and to “get on with our lives.”
However, mindlessness also has dangers. Mindlessness encourages us to rely on routine and prevents us from being flexible in changing circumstances. For example, business-people who have been successful in the past sometimes mindlessly continue with the same plans and methods that brought them success and fail to notice that circumstances have changed. Aid workers from developed countries mindlessly try to enlighten their counterparts in transition economies on “correct” actions in a market economy, even though such actions may be inappropriate for the different situation. Tourists traveling abroad mindlessly search menus for their “back-home” favorite dishes. These are examples of expecting cruise control to work in changing conditions for which it was not designed.
Sources of Cultural Scripts We learn much about our culture from imitating others. As children, we imitate the attitudes and behavior of our parents and other role models.3 We become aware of ideas and actions that are considered normal in our own culture. We encounter deliberate practices of socialization—at home, in school, and elsewhere—where we learn new scripts, often derived from the culture or subculture.
For most of us, cultural cruise control makes our own culture the center of our mental universe and causes us to regard all others as abnormal. Scripts from other cultures are not considered, and, if others practice them, we ignore or misunderstand them. Even if what we learn is simply unease in the presence of those from other cultures, this discomfort is likely to be built into our cruise control.
When we are with people with whom we share underlying cultural assumptions—most likely people from the same background and social class as well as culture—cultural cruise control tends to work well. As long as others share the same cultural grounding, we can take culture for granted and focus on other matters. But when we meet people whose cultural background is different, errors and misunderstandings quickly emerge, and our relationships are undermined.
Consider situations where someone has, to use an expression beloved by the English, “dropped a clanger” (that is, unwittingly said or done something offensive to the religion, ethnicity, background, or beliefs of
someone else present). An example is putting out your hand to shake the hand of an orthodox Jew, not realizing that this familiarity is prohibited by his customs. Most clangers are caused by one person continuing to make the assumptions of his or her own culture without noticing that the other person has a different background and customs.
How Culture Affects Behavior4
Cultural programming also acts as a mental template against which new information is interpreted. We are not cameras: we do not take in neutral information from out there and reproduce it exactly on the film of our minds. We perceive information with cultural and other cues embedded in it and see it through the lens of our own preconceived frameworks. In the process, differences and distortions occur.
At any given time, we can attend to only a fraction of the many ever- changing stimuli the world presents us. In cultural cruise control we rely on our mental programming and screen out all that is not directly relevant. Cultural conditioning teaches us what to perceive and what to ignore: people from different cultures can be presented with exactly the same situation and perceive it differently.
Suppose you are eating with someone at a restaurant, and your companion is talking about a business deal. If you are interested in business, you will pay close attention to the words. But if you are, for example, a fashion expert or a chef, you may be more interested in what your companion is wearing or eating, and if you are romantically interested you may attend to what they look like, and to cues that may tell you what they think of you. If you are from a collectivist society, you may be interested in the person’s relationship with family or group, and if you are from an individualist society, in their personal attainments. Your culture is a key factor that focuses your attention.