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Starting Now: How to Listen + Act Across Cultures

January 5, 2017

I spent my New Year’s Eve this year deep in conversation about the state of politics in the U.S., gender issues, and global tensions.


Naturally (for those who know me), it was a conversation in which I was speaking with a couple people who have opinions strongly opposed to my own. As we spoke, listened to each other, and tried to tease out common ground as well as unique experiences, I had a moment of clarity. My debating partners kept referencing the need for protection. To protect a country. A people. Loved ones. I nodded and took the opportunity to think through and articulate my context, which I’ve come to realize focuses on exchange rather than or much more strongly than protection.


I have been fortunate to hear about and witness my parents’ and friends’ many diverse struggles. Immigrating to different countries. Coming out. Building significant businesses in foreign countries - and in secondary or tertiary languages. I say I’m fortunate in this because these stories and being part of them have enriched my world view and encouraged me to test perceived limitations in lifestyles and compassion. Part of that examination has given me itchy feet, enabling me to live in six cities around the U.S. and part-time in Tel Aviv, Israel as well as travel fairly often. With the shifts in lifestyle and travels, my curiosity to look at the challenges (and successes) of others - and see if I have a role to play - has only strengthened. And I’ve largely experienced this curiosity, if shared with others, is reciprocated.


As I studied psychology in undergrad, my most infuriating lesson was that of the “bystander effect”. The effect occurs when someone is victimized in front of a group of people and no one steps in to help. How could this happen? As the group size expands, everyone becomes less likely to help as they each believe someone else will step in and take action - even as another person may be dying at the collective group’s feet. At a wall of “bystander apathy” - the other term for this social psychological phenomenon. This inaction, in my mind, is unforgivable.


While studying this behavior, I was also fortunate enough to minor in cross cultural studies. Through the sociology, philosophy, religion and other classes I learned to observe and listen to other contexts or situations just a little longer before jumping in to provide solutions or action (which I’ll admit is my default setting as an individual). And to own the biases and prejudices that I held, hold, and influence my problem solving.


These learnings helped me understand my tendencies as a person, and still stand as principles for me to reference as I develop today. They also make me think a great deal about how we each balance our individual potential to both listen or hesitate for more context to be unveiled and then act. Variability here is, of course, broad based on our unique experiences and capacities to absorb diverse information.


Going back to the New Year’s Eve, my sparring partners and I entered into that long conversation with strikingly different experiences which influenced our world views. Ones that have become polarized the world over. This is obvious today but I don’t believe we all share or consider those highly charged and impactful experiences nearly enough before acting on them. And often what underlies those final, resulting actions are different cultural norms, expectations, and histories.


So, this weekly blog is going to be my endeavor to share what I’ve experienced and understand of different cultures around the world. The idiosyncrasies that make them special, frustrating, and can lead to complicated conversations, bungled business efforts, and not-so-simple travel paths. My hope is that the forthcoming posts - along with those of other writers over time - will develop stronger instincts within all of us to hesitate, to contemplate each other’s contexts, and then to move forward with more mindful action.



Please feel free to comment with countries or cultures you’re keen to read about or share experiences you’ve had as well that were particularly enlightening.




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