12 Rules for Crossing Cultures
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Mo climbed up the rocky mountain. Suddenly, a rock broke off under his foot. He grabbed onto a small tree and watched the rock bounce down and down. He took a deep breath and looked up. And he saw the mountain top covered in smoke, fire, and flashes of light.
“I must keep going,” he said to himself. Cold and afraid, Mo kept climbing up and up. And as he reached the top, he heard a voice. The voice boomed and echoed around the dark mountain walls. Mo shook with fear, but he calmed himself saying, “I must enter the cloud.”
At the bottom of the mountain, the people watched and waited. They waited for 40 days. “He’s dead,” said one man. “God took him,” said another. But finally, Moses came out of the cloud of smoke. And he climbed down the mountain, carrying two tablets of stone.
On the stone tablets were written 10 rules, called “The 10 Commandments.” And Moses taught these rules to his people. Like Moses, for 1000’s of years, people have made rules. All cultures set rules for people. Some people love rules. And some people hate rules.
But rules can guide, teach, and encourage us. The list below sets out 12 rules for crossing cultures. We may know the rules of our own culture, but not know the rules of others. So, if you want to adventure into new cultures, these 12 rules can guide you and smooth your way.
As you study and use these rules, think about 3 things. (A) What do these rules tell me about “the unknown“ of other cultures? (B) What do these rules tell me about “the known“ of my own culture? And (C) what do these rules teach me about myself “the knower?”
- Look for Reasons. Try to understand why people act, think, and speak differently from you. Ask yourself, “What is a good reason for acting this different way?” Be careful! Their reasons may differ from your reasons!
- Over-Simple. Spot your over-simple ideas, biases, and stereotypes. Put them into words, so you can see them more clearly. Avoid over-simple sayings like: “All Germans do X” Instead, try “Many Germans may tend to do X.”
- Respect. Respect cultural differences. Don’t judge people by your own cultural values. Think carefully and deeply before you compare cultures. Remember, rules differ across cultures. We don’t use English rules to judge the rules of Japanese grammar!
- Experience. Experience your new culture. Show interest in cultural life. Before you say something is bad, learn more about it. Learn the language. Try new foods. Enjoy new music. Visit new places. Meet new people.
- Individuals & Groups. Notice how people think about groups and individuals in different ways. Adapt to these differences. Ask yourself: “Do people act this way because they value the group or the individual?”
- Negative Comments. Again, avoid saying that something is bad in your new culture. If a culture is new for you, you may not understand it yet. Every culture has bad things. But we may think something is bad when it’s just different.
- Communication Styles. Adjust to various communication styles. Notice differences in direct speech, indirect speech, tone of voice, volume, bad language, and taboos. Adjust your style as needed. Try to fit into your new culture or subculture.
- Humor & Laughter. Laugh and find the funny things in life. Humor can help you relax. Humor can help you deal with cross-cultural stress. But use humor with caution. Be sensitive about cultural feelings and differences about humor.
- Body Language. Adapt to differences in body language. Notice nonverbal communication, gestures, facial expressions, eye-contact, touching, personal distance, and space. Remember, your body language may differ in meaning in a new culture.
- Innovations & Traditions. Some cultures value change. Some cultures value tradition. Understand and adapt to differences about local manners, traditions, cultural innovations, religious values, ceremonies, and spiritual customs.
- Time. People have different values about time. Look for differences about time for appointments, schedules, lateness, being on time, and time management.
- Social Status. Learn to act and speak politely regarding social status and power relations. Use appropriate speech, manners, clothing, gestures, and titles based on social status.
Bonus Rule. Remember, individuals can vary more than groups. Cultures differ. But people differ, too. Samuel speaks strong opinions in a big voice. You may think Samuel comes from America or Italy. But Samuel is Japanese. Many Japanese tend not to say strong opinions in loud voices. So, Samuel’s behavior shows how individuals can vary more than groups.These 12 rules are not the 10 Commandments. They won’t change history. But they can help you cross cultures. Here’s an easy way to remember them. Each rule starts with the letters. LORE, INCH, BITS. The word “Lore” means stories, traditions, and customs. “Inch” and “bits” refer to little things. So, you can learn the lore of a new culture little by little. That is, “Learn cultural LORE, INCH by BITS.”