One of my ‘boasts’ as a Cultural Intelligence facilitator and coach is that I’ve successfully offended people on every major continent in the world. I’ve learnt the hard way, without the benefit of cultural awareness training programs, that being confident and capable working and interacting in cross cultural contexts requires both emotional and cultural intelligence.
My most enlightening experience was as a 23 year old in Zimbabwe working as a teacher in Rimuka High School, a black township school.
One afternoon my 4A4 African History class didn’t arrive for class. I waited 15 minutes and they still didn’t show. I checked my timetable. No mistake there. I then checked the master timetable in the staffroom. This revealed a change that I wasn’t aware of. According to the timetable 4A4 had Science with Science Head Mr Samire. My history class had been switched to the Friday afternoon 3pm timeslot.
On close inspection I realized this meant that Mr Samire finished his teaching week at 3pm instead of 5. I knew he liked to go drinking at the local Shabeen on a Friday afternoon. I reached the immediate conclusion that he’d changed the timetable so that he could get on the booze early. And he’d done so without bothering to consult or inform ME!
I went from calm to incandescent rage in an instant. How dare he! I went straight to his classroom and knocked on the door. He looked surprised to see me. I demanded we speak NOW.
We went into the lab at the front of the classroom, while the students sat bemused.
‘You changed the timetable without consulting me.’
‘Don’t shout at me.’
‘I’m not shouting.’
‘Don’t shout at me.’
‘I’m not shouting at you. I’m telling you should have had the decency to consult me.’
I stormed out. He came rushing after me.
‘You do that again and I’ll blow you, I’ll blow you,’ he shouted as I left the classroom to the stunned silence of the students. I assumed this meant he was going to punch me out.
At the time I thought I handled it well. I’d asserted myself strongly. Demonstrated that I would not be pushed around. My ego was well satisfied.
When I reflected some time afterwards I realized how appalling my behavior was. And hypocritical. Mr Samire showed me no respect, at least in my mind, and I did worse. Humiliating a respected senior teacher in this manner was shameful by any standard in any culture. In Shona culture where elderly men such as Mr Samire have the status of Sekuru, wise one, my outburst was disrespectful in the extreme.
So what did I learn from this ugly encounter? I learnt that anger feeds off egocentricity and self – importance. When the need to be acknowledged consulted and respected leads to rage when it is not satisfied, then the ego has way too much control. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) implies humility and the ability to keep the ego in check. It doesn’t mean that we don’t experience anger. Rather it means controlling anger and using it constructively – to bring about social change, for example – rather than losing control and using it destructively on loved ones, friends, colleagues or fellow drivers.
My advice to my brash egocentric 23 year old self would have been, first: Get over yourself Phil. You are not the centre of the universe. It is not all about you. I would then have suggested a useful strategy for managing anger: walk away from the situation and take three deep calming breaths, with the exhale twice as long as the inhale, before taking any action. Had I done this I might have walked down the corridor to the Deputy’s office to find out exactly why the timetable had been changed. It may have had nothing to do with Mr Samire’s need to get on the booze and it may well have been the Deputy’s responsibility to inform me of the change. Quite possibly Mr Samire was blameless. But I failed to check this out and so ran with the victim story my ego craved.
Of course an Australian culture that values individuality and egalitarianism encourages us to assert our rights, speak out directly and be counted. This works well in this culture but can seem overly direct and rude to people from cultures where there are more complex rules around asserting individual needs. When working overseas or with people from different cultures sometimes the primacy of ‘individuality’ needs to be tempered.
Had I had greater cultural awareness of Shona culture I would have understood its hierarchical nature. Respected elder Mr Samire may have felt within his rights to assert himself at the expense of a junior member of staff. Perhaps the onus was on me to adjust my expectation of how things were supposed to happen.
So is the lesson here to simply suck it up and adapt the values of the culture you find yourself in? Well no. Cultural Intelligence(CQ) implies knowing when and how to adapt. It means neither abandoning your own values nor asserting them mindlessly. It means integrating both cultural perspectives into a more complete way of being. In my case it would have meant respecting the hierarchy and the status of Mr Samire, while enquiring how decisions are made in the school and requesting, respectfully, that in future I be informed of any decisions that directly impacted on me.
The equation is this: EQ + CQ = Integration of being, which equals greater presence to the reality of any situation and therefore greater effectiveness in responding to the world how it is rather than how you might want it or imagine it to be. This translates to being more effective in the workplace, at home, in all contexts and all relationships. What could be more important in these uncertain times?
Phil Voysey is the Director of Cultural Connexions. He is an experienced Cultural Intelligence facilitator and coach.