Learning to See Through New Glasses

Dec 19, 2017 12:02:39 PM Sarah Rymer

One of the challenges of living in a new culture is that things often don’t make sense.  Why do local people act in ways that aren’t logical?  Why do they look at me strangely when I act in perfectly normal ways?
morrhigan-lucretious-glasses-1426374-1919x1322.jpgThat is why is why learning to see through new glasses is important.

Often, the tension is felt when our cultural norms, our history, and perspectives come into conflict with our new host country's cultural norms, history and perspectives.  What makes this hard is that we usually don’t realize that a conflict of perspective is taking place.

We all view the world though “glasses” that have lenses that are shaped by the culture we have grown up in. The events, relationships, and logical behavior we assume are true and universal are being filtered through our “monocultural glasses.” This filtering distorts what we see, but we think what we see is normal and the only way to view the world. Other cultures view the same events, relationships, and behavior that I see through their own “glasses” and come to a different conclusions and reactions. Their view, which is filtered by their “glasses,” is thought to be normal and the only way to view the world. 

To successfully live cross-cultural is to realize that all of us are wearing “glasses” and that our view of the world is not completely accurate, just as our host culture is not always accurate.  The views we get aren’t wrong, but different.  To thrive in another culture is to learn to view the world through the host cultures glasses, always remembering that the new view is not completely accurate, and your own culture’s view is not completely true.

As an American I view shopping as an impersonal, financial transaction. Prices are fixed. I have no interest in the seller as a person, or a friend.  My goal is to buy what I need and move on.  When I lived in Asia, shopping in the open-air market, I discovered the view of shopping is more of a person to person social transaction.  Bargaining over price is part of establishing a relationship with the seller, and should take some time. By having a relationship with the seller, one gets a fair price. Sometimes you pay a bit more, sometimes the price is a bit less. 

Coming in as an American, wearing my “American glasses,” I wanted to quickly get the cheapest price by bargaining hard and move on. In doing so, I alienated many of the sellers who were looking at me through their “glasses” and thought I was a rude, boorish foreigner. It took a long time for me to discover that I needed to slow down, to greet each person, to talk with each seller, and that bargaining was more a social interaction than a financial transaction.  

How do we learn to put on another culture’s “glasses?” By going slowly and observing what is happening around you. Become a participant-observer as you go through your day. Don’t be afraid of making cultural mistakes, learn from them. Ask questions of your new friends. Learning to view the world through a new pair of “glasses” takes time, it is challenging work. But it is one way to become comfortable and a real participant in your new home.

About the Author: Scott is the IDEAS Director for Project Operations in Asia. He transitioned from a monocultural perspective to a cross-cultural persepective when he moved to Taiwan in 1980. Check out his post: Technology to Help you Learn a New Language.





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