Thu, May 23 2013
Are cultural training courses a necessary part of the integration process, or a ridiculous, even harmful attempt to repackage,commercialise and sell `culture'? ANDREA ENRIGHT and NEIL CONNOLLY don their gloves to fight it out in the cultural training debate, while EKATERINA DIMITROVA invites you to join her in an integration experiment. You make the final call - cultural training OK, or K.O.? Let the sparring commence...
Sometimes, Americans find it hard to believe that we're in the Peace Corps. Their vision, cemented by effective public service announcements and scenes from the movie Airplane, of us digging wells or playing baseball with dark-skinned natives is simply too strong. They're disappointed that we enjoy running water, DSL and central heating. But we knew long ago, upon renting that Rick Steve's Bulgaria DVD from the Denver Library, that we would be heading to a developed country, where Puma and Diesel stamped sweaters ate McDonalds sundaes, went hiking in the mountains and enjoyed a bottle of Heineken on a tree-trimmed patio. The language would be a challenge, but the cigarette- and vegetable-craving culture, we subconsciously assumed, relative to the African village we had once pictured, appeared suspiciously similar to our own.
Fortunately, Peace Corps knew better. To prepare us for this sometimes exhilarating, other moments exhausting, two-year-plus assignment, they provided a ten-week training course. Not even the tiniest pebble of information (which, careful, you may find in your bag of rice) was forgotten. We learned not just about communism, but its aftershocks nearly two decades later, including a society that plans and smiles a lot less than we're accustomed to. We heard how business occurs during smoke breaks, alone time in a family setting is less accepted, and turning down domashna (homemade) rakia, if not to at least nazdrave (toast), is insulting. There were hours of community projects and lifestyle assignments designed for ultimate cultural adaptation.
Yet, we dug further, unearthing another, often forgotten layer, of cultural divergences, based on five primary concepts. How an individual thinks about Fate, Self, Time, Fairness and Communication are crucial components that can either divide or unite. These spectrums required us to examine our own thought structure and prepared for variations in the Bulgarian psyche. For example, do we define life as "what we do" (activism) or "what happens to us" (fatalism)? Does one's identity largely depend on their group memberships, or is a sense of independence more important? Is Time a servant and tool of the people or do we adjust our needs to suit the demands of time? Do we rely on non-verbal cues and context to receive messages or do we prefer a more direct method of communication? Comparing our answers with those of Bulgarians painted the clearest picture of our cultural differences.
Certainly, these trainings didn't replace the experience of learning for myself. But I found that my training not only prepared me for the lack of queues at the post office (which kept my initial response more civilized), but also helped me understand why. Because of this, I began building trust instead of erecting barriers. This empowered me to integrate with less caution, eases my emotional adjustment, and increased my effectiveness as a volunteer.
And Peace Corps isn't alone. Some UK diplomats participate in a four-week language immersion and home-stay programme, learning about the Bulgarian way of life.
The United States foreign service provides comprehensive cultural and language training, ranging, from one day to two years, through a programme at the National Foreign Affairs Training Centre in Arlington, Virginia. Committed to enhancing the capacity of personnel to affect international relations, they offer courses that are designed to promote successful performance, to ease cultural adjustment and to enhance the leadership and management capabilities of the US foreign affairs community.
But not all government programmes are equal.
Claire Hamlisch, Representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is on her 10th assignment and her 7th country in 31 years - and that's not counting official missions to 18 other destinations. She's a well-travelled expat and has never once had a UN-sponsored course.
"I believe cross-cultural training is not only useful, but fascinating," she said. "That kind of training (if the UN had provided it) would have taught me, for example, that in Thailand, one never touches the top of another person's head, as this is considered a lack of respect."
Three USAID employees I spoke with felt similarly about their lack of preparation. One is hoping to influence the currently ineffective "sudden immersion" strategy with a report on the benefits of cross-cultural modules.
But many expats, unlike diplomats with a responsibility to advance foreign policy, or volunteer and development workers who intend to create sustainable solutions, are here to live their life - often as a spouse, parent or retiree. So if you're simply a long-term visitor, are these classes still important? Absolutely. Why would anyone turn down information that can help them avoid cultural mistakes, ease the transition and provide education on their new home?
Ann, a British expat veteran with eight years experience moving across the continent, agrees. Before arriving in Bulgaria, she looked out for the usual cultural zingers: greeting, hospitality, gift-giving, taboo subjects, work practices and office culture. "For people working apart from their home country, some kind of cultural training is absolutely essential," she says. "I can't imagine living somewhere by just jumping in."
And several expats I spoke with also expressed regret that while they found lectures on history and social customs, what they were really looking for were clues to Bulgarian behaviour and practical solutions for every day interactions.
I've heard just one expat say that Bulgaria "just isn't all that different"; that, while cultural classes might make sense for an Australia to Japan transfer, they're not needed for, say, an Irishman heading to Sofia. After nine months here, and countless other expat conversations, I disagree. Some cultural preparation, even a short course, assuming you want to achieve integration and earn respect from fellow Bulgarians, is a good idea.
Lone, a Danish woman teaching in the Scandinavian Studies Programme at Sofia University commented that the "cultural flexibility and competencies required for living abroad is important to have even if you're not going very far away".
And American Patricia Linderman, experienced expat, published writer and professional translator, is currently working on the second volume of Realities of Foreign Service Life. During her research, many expats told her they "did their homework" when moving to an unknown culture. But when heading to a seemingly similar country, they mistakenly assumed there would be only minimal cultural contrasts. The result? Uncomfortable surprises, bewildering moments and unexpected discoveries.
But what about employees at Bulgarian companies? Those people managing, teaching, directing and programming. I would argue this audience stands to benefit even more. While government employees typically work with colleagues from their own country, these expats are often working directly with Bulgarians. I suppose they possess no professional obligation of tolerance or respect, but this only potentially increases their chance of an ignorant and unintended offence, and, therefore reinforces the need for education.
Two corporate expats I contacted, one in Bulgaria and one in Austria, had no training at all and clearly felt worse off without it. An American and his spouse working in Mexico had a two-day class after arriving in the country. Although short, they reported experiencing several "aha! moments" which helped them understand what had been going on in the Mexican workplace. Too, they felt the course helped guide expectations for their in-country personal relationships.
It's no surprise that there's an industry devoted solely to the cultural cause. As new media, immigration and globalisation align purposes and encourage mergers, it's become mandatory to address the ignorant, monolingual elephant in the boardroom.
And this is not only about promoting harmony, but saving money, too. Cultural training research indicates that financially, you're much better off preventing the breakdown in communication, than paying for the consequences.
It's exceedingly clear that cross-cultural information is beneficial to one's professional and personal success - not to mention sanity. So, the next time you find an expat's (or your own) behaviour a bit too conspicuous for comfort, don't be afraid to initiate a conversation or even a crusade, appealing to your own firm, organisation or government agency for training. It won't prevent every faux pas, but in your next assignment, it could mean the difference between a three-week adjustment period and a three-month adjustment period. And when you've had your 10th consecutive bad day in Sri Lanka, it will be worth it.
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