September 2017, Volume 1, Issue 5

You are a Foreigner Everywhere

Many times you may find yourself working in different situations and struggle to adapt to the local scene. At times, you may cope by stating that you already know all there is to know about your situation. How many times have you thought or commented to yourself the following?

“I know how to change already!” “I work with people who are different than me all the time, what’s so special about culture that I need all this help?”

Now that’s a fair question, when it comes right down to it; no two people are exactly alike. People from your own culture may be very different than you; their personalities and backgrounds may be different but they still hold many of the same fundamental values and beliefs that you do. Chances are what you perceive as being natural and normal will also be natural and normal to them.

However, when working with people from other cultures, there will be many profound differences in values, beliefs and worldviews that will place you in a separate category from working with someone from your own culture.

This doesn’t mean that every global engagement will be difficult, or that the your people skills will no longer apply when you interact with foreigners, but it does mean that whatever adeptness you have in working with people who are different from you, regardless of the difference, are now going to be needed all the more because the potential for misunderstanding will be greater when you are in a different environment than when you are in your own. In addition, you are almost certainly going to need information and knowledge that you may not currently possess.

To say, “I know how to change already,” implies you can easily adapt yourself to the minds of people from other cultures and that you understand why they think and act the way they do, and can quickly and easily become what you think they want, when in fact, that is impossible since you cannot possibly know how to change for everyone and for every situation you find yourself in.

Humans are not like traffic signals that are timed to change, there is a process of learning and understanding that must go into adapting and making changes. You can’t change on the spot and if you try, you will come across as being fake no one will trust you. This perception will cost you money, friends, business and professional advancement. It limits, alienates and hurts you and others around you.

Developing global awareness is no longer a subject taught in college or for globe-trotting executives; it is a basic survival skill for almost everyone.

Few of us live in a monoculture world. Even in your own culture you work with people from other cultures, you may live next door to them, study with them, they may be your customers, your competition; they may even be your in-laws.

The point here is that you are a foreigner everywhere except in your own culture.

Thriving in Foreign Cultures

Below I tell a story of a mind-bending mystery from the world of folklore, see if you could solve it without peeking or scrolling to the bottom of this newsletter for the answer:

Heaven and Hell

People are always wishing. But once in China a man got his wish, which was to see the difference between heaven and hell before he died.

When he visited hell, he saw tables crowded with delicious food, but everyone was hungry and angry. They had food, but were forced to sit several feet from the table and use chopsticks three feet long that made it impossible to get any food into their mouths.

When the man saw heaven, he was very surprised for it looked the same, big tables of delicious food. People were forced to sit several feet from the table and use three-foot long chopsticks that made it impossible to get any food into their mouths. It was exactly like hell, but in heaven the people were well fed and happy.


If you are struggling, scroll to the bottom of this newsletter for the answer.

This folktale is retold from Tales from Old China by Isabelle C. Chang (Random House, 1969 and Studies in Jewish and World Folklore by Haim Schwarzbaum (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter & Co., 1968.

Consumerism and Culture

Consumption is driven by functional or social needs. Clothes satisfy a functional need; fashion satisfies a social need. Homes are a functional need, but it also serves a social need, such as belonging. A car is functional, but the type of car your drive can satisfy a social need.

A car’s latest technology for example, may be viewed as a universal motive, but the associations linked to technology vary across individuals and cultures. The latest technology may be sporty in one culture and economic in another.

Think about the following:

  • Soft drinks and toothpaste and how they appeal differently across various cultures. We will look at United States, France, India and Brazil. Even though the products serve the same need in each country, the way they appeal and influence individuals into making a purchase are quite different across the cultural divide.
  • For soft drinks people, from Brazil, France and India rated the attribute “contains no artificial ingredients” higher than individuals from the United States. Americans place high importance on “taste” and “convenience.”
  • For toothpaste, the French value a germ free mouth, their ads will emphasize “kills germs in the mouth.” On the other hand, Americans, emphasis function of the product as being a “well known brand,” “freshness of the mouth” and “brightens teeth.” The value is looking your best and smelling great.
  • For the Brazilian, nonfunctional attributes are important such as the “color of the toothpaste,” and “the tube squeezes easily.”

These examples showcase the importance of understanding your local environment before launching a new product in a global setting. Are you thinking of your audience?

Answer Key: Chinese Folklore – How was it done?

In heaven they were feeding one another.

The Point: If you are traveling or living and working in another culture look at and try to understand what their pictures, advertising, magazines and public images, are telling you. You will learn a lot about how a culture is set up and what they value. In China the value is Collectivism, the group prevails over the individual.

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