What is culture?
In this instance, culture is best understood as traditional core knowledge shared by any group large or small, which binds them through concepts, practices, and actions. Culture bonds through shared knowledge of the larger communities’ beliefs and practices, which have, likely, been passed down over generations. This common core knowledge, like mortar, unifies countries and communities, making them unique and different from the others. When speaking of culture, I do not include politics, rather point to the characteristics and practices a people and community share making them unique from others. This knowledge embodies what I feel are important clues to successfully establish amicable and beneficial relations between different countries and communities.
When interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds, I consciously stay open to things “outside my comfort zone”. I stay mindful of thoughts and inner reactions, while reminding myself to let go of prejudice and judgemental self-talk. There is wisdom in every culture, however, that wisdom may be challenging to recognize at first. Entering into a cross-cultural situation offers me an opportunity to notice the self-talk emulating from inside my head. In my mind, being open to my racist potential is a head start at foiling reactions, which may come off as disrespectful or haughty. Honestly though? I am racist. I was conditioned that way by my family and my community, but, not unlike an addiction, I must accept my racist tendencies before change can take place.
In the US, friendships and relationships, compared to more traditional societies, tend to be superficial. A friendly suggestion to meet may not be followed through on and friends may not be around when needed. However, from my experience in China and other countries, friendships and relationships tend to be comparatively deeper. Chinese friends are there through the thick and thin or they are a thorn in the flesh. Confucius was aware of this idiosyncrasy of Chinese culture and admonished his students to practice respect. He said, “A respectable person creates harmony, a scoundrel fosters discord”; “君子和而不同，小人同而不和”. Confucius experienced disrespect himself having been banished from his home consequent to his peaceful views. He was forced to roam for 14 years, triggered by his attempt to bring harmony to a corrupt government.
Not unlike respect, cultural competency is based on slowing down and being mindful. We all see the world differently; we have different hopes, fears, and means for survival. It is important, however, to understand why we see the world the way we do; from our upbringing, friends, and individual life experiences –or lack thereof. When we stake claim to our ways as being ‘the right ways’, it becomes a potential spawning ground for division and discord.
How to Foster an Inclusive Mindset
The Chinese expression “Focus on the similarities and save the differences”; “求同存异” is an expression originating from Mao Ze Dong. It was coined during a Provincial Party Committee meeting where Mao suggested the need to work on the problems at hand and leave other problems for a later date. Later, in 1955, the Chinese diplomat, Zhou En Lai, attended an Asian-African summit in Bandung, Indonesia, where he made reference to the expression. Zhou applied it to foster a sense of diplomacy among people from different Asian nations with diverse cultural and political backgrounds. Despite the perceived differences, Zhou suggested they focus on similarities and avoid focusing on differences. By applying this concept, Zhou was able to successfully alleviate destructive undercurrents threatening discord among the attending nations. Zhou’s desire to foster harmony became the basis for a successful 1955 Asian-African Summit.
What can we glean from Zhou’s application of the expression, “Focus on the similarities and save the differences”? Today, when we focus on similarities, not differences, we can bridge disaccord and see through the illusion of division. By doing so, we establish a positive foundation for inclusive and harmonious cross-cultural endeavors. Applying the idea of “focus on the similarities and save the differences” to cross-cultural relations may be compared to taking a deep breath in a stressful situation. By focusing on similarities, we empathize with the challenges or hopes others hold to. When we recognize that everyone desires to be happy and successful, we may be more inclined to put forth the effort to find effective ways to achieve harmony, be it with partners, clients, or friends. Differences will always exist, especially cultural differences or simply how we approach things. But, when we approach situations with patience and by practicing openness and a desire for mutual benefit, success is within easy reach.
Notice Your Self-Talk
Be aware of internal dialogue. If you notice yourself becoming frustrated or fearful around people from different cultural backgrounds or those with different views, notice your self-talk. Become curious about it. Inquire within as to where this comes from. Usually, if we are honest with ourselves, we find it is early conditioning. Change the self-talk in your mind to a discourse of civility, inclusivity, or compassion. When we change our inner dialogue, our outer world changes with it.
Offer compliments. This is a simple yet useful skill for cross-cultural interactions. Simply say something nice or friendly. Share some positive energy. Inquire about your counterpart’s home country or family. Ask them something about their culture. Ask how to say something in their language and repeat it back to them. When you forget, ask again. There are many ways to bridge cultures and differences, try some of your own. Take the initiative and you will reap the rewards!
Relationships are important in all interactions. If we don’t feel comfortable with someone, it will show. However, if someone is causing us to feel uncomfortable, we may want to look at ourselves before calling out the other person. When it came to recognizing one’s responsibility for success or failure, Confucius was a proponent for self reflection. During a conversation with one of Confucius’ followers Zeng Zi, Zeng Zi said, “I stop and reflect on myself three times daily”; “吾日三省吾身”. In Chinese, when we use the number three in this context, it suggests a number in excess of three. In the dialogue, Zeng Zi continued to question his own actions, asking, “When interacting with others, am I being upright? Am I honest with my friends? Am I applying the knowledge of the Teacher (Confucius)?”
Self-cultivation was a common topic for Confucius. We know this from well-known quotes, such as, ”When I am among others, they are my teachers”; “三人行必有我师焉”. Confucius also said, “When you meet someone of a higher moral standard, aspire to be like that person”; “见贤思齐”. These words of wisdom from the Annals of Confucius, clearly support the idea that China’s most highly proclaimed teacher regarded himself as a learner, recognizing the need for consistent self-improvement and learning.
When interacting across cultures, we can all learn from the traditional teachings of Confucius and his students by practicing self-reflection, focus on the similarities, all while attending to our cultural self-talk.
Looking to test our your cross-cultural capabilities? Visit the Spring Canton Fair this month. Read more here.
Todd Cornell is a China Culture Authority, China Business Consultant and Language Facilitator. American-born, he spent his adult formative years immersed in Chinese culture and business. He received a BA in language from a university in China and worked with several Fortune 500 companies in their China joint-ventures and projects. He is the Principal of Cultur668, a consulting service for American businesses doing business with China.