Today I would like to invite you to a little experiment:
Just have a look at the following photo. Write down exactly what you see in this photo.
Were you really able to see, i.e. perceive with your eyes, everything you wrote down? Or have you also made assumptions, interpreted the situation as it would ‘normally’ be understood and evaluated observations, e.g. whether a person is young or old, something is moving fast or slowly?
This is exactly what happens in our everyday life: we observe a situation, we interpret it by comparing it with similar situations known to us in order to understand and evaluate them. We do this in order to decide in a flash how best to react and act. This is an important skill when danger threatens. We learn to go through this process from perception – e.g. seeing or hearing – to interpretation and evaluation in fractions of a second, so that we no longer recognise the individual elements.
Interestingly, however, one and the same situation can be interpreted and understood very differently in different cultures. This becomes obvious whenever people of different cultural backgrounds come together, e.g. when a company in Germany hires a foreign expert. The new employee reacts and acts quite automatically on the basis of the behaviour patterns learned in his home country and the employees in the German company behave according to the patterns learned in Germany. The more different the learned evaluation and behaviour patterns are, the more likely misunderstandings and conflicts arise. If we are aware of this connection, we can approach foreign employees differently.
Let’s go back to the photo: Do you think the person is moving away from something or towards something? Is the shadow a second person? If so, are both people out and about together or is one person following the other or is only one person moving at all? What is ‘right’ here?
Perhaps you can see the complexity of this subject from this simple example. In order to avoid misinterpretations and hasty conclusions, it can be helpful to sharpen one’s own perception and first ask oneself: ‘What do I perceive with my eyes (ears)? With this objective perception you can then talk to the foreign employee and find out how he interprets the situation. By exchanging their respective perspectives, both sides broaden their intercultural understanding, can agree on future behaviour and reduce the likelihood of intercultural misunderstandings.
However, my own experience also shows me how difficult it is to focus solely on my perception without drawing direct conclusions. I am permanently training myself here. Just try it out in any everyday situation. And remember this little exercise if you are surprised or annoyed by the behaviour of a foreign employee. What exactly does he do, what do you see?
Intercultural Coaching for international professionals