A common misconception people have of cultural awareness is that it’s about “the other”; that its main focus is learning about other people and how they do and don’t do things.
Although this is certainly part of it, cultural awareness also relies heavily on self-awareness.
Without understanding your own self and why you do the things you do, say the things you say and believe the things you believe – you can never really appreciate another’s point of view.
Self-awareness helps us acknowledge that we are shaped by the world around us. By acknowledging this about yourself, you also acknowledge that this is just as true for anyone else – everyone does what they do due to underlying influences.
So really the aim of cultural awareness is to try and understand yourself as well as the other.
In any sort of cross-cultural situation there are always two or more cultures at play, which means you need to know where both, or all sides, are coming from.
Eye contact is a very simple example of this.
How we look at people or don’t look at people in the eyes is a very basic and raw expression of our cultural values.
Some people in the world are brought up from a very young age being told by their parents to “look me in the eye and tell me the truth.” Others may have been raised being told “Don’t you dare look me in the eyes.”
You can see why later in adult life, the two cultures will have very different attitudes towards eye contact. Within a cross-cultural situation it’s easy to see why the two may misinterpret each other’s behaviour.
Eye-contact is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of things we all do that have their roots in what we believe to be right or wrong.
How we communicate, share information, what we look for in our leaders and what we expect in terms of behaviour from others are all influenced in much the same way.
Self-awareness is also an important tool in ensuring that we don’t let our own assumptions, presumptions and preconceived ideas cloud our lenses when we are working in a cross-cultural environment.
Want to learn more about self-awareness and working with other cultures?