Leaders give people space and grace for cultural whiplash!

What sews nicely in one culture may cut in another. But with a little effort and creativity, you can find many ways to encourage and learn from alternative points of view while safeguarding valuable relationships. ~Erin Meyer

I was exhausted at the end of last week. On Friday evening when I looked back on my week, I discovered what was causing me to say, “I’m so glad it’s Friday.” I had cultural whiplash.

My week started with facilitating two days of training with a small group of individuals and each one was from a different ethnic background. The next day I was with a group where they all shared a common ethnic background and I was the clear minority. Then I ended the week working on a project where you would think I had more in common with this group, on the surface they look a lot like me. However, they are in a geographic region that still represents a strong influence from one specific Anglo-Saxon group, different from my own.

As I made my way through the week, there were certainly times when I wanted to hit “rewind” and get a second chance at some of my interactions. I took comfort in thinking about examples author Erin Meyer shares in her book The Culture Map. This is her area of expertise and she describes scenarios where she too, goofed up.

Leaders educate themselves.

Meyer says, “Millions of people work in global settings while viewing everything from their own cultural perspectives and assuming that all differences, controversy, and misunderstanding are rooted in personality. This is not due to laziness. Many well-intentioned people don’t educate themselves about cultural differences because they believe that if they focus on individual differences, that will be enough.” 

I would argue, that you don’t need to work in a global setting to have differing cultural perspectives. Various neighborhoods of a metropolitan city or the east side and west side of the same state can have differing cultures. This is something we all need to be more intentional about learning and become more culturally flexible.

Listen more. Speak less.

Meyer also says, “When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act.” Sometimes we may be a little too anxious to try and fit in. We may need to give ourselves more time to just watch, and just listen. It takes practice and persistence, much like developing physical flexibility.

Give others space and grace.

I would add to Meyer’s suggestion, that when we see and hear others messing up, as I did last week, that we give them some space and grace. We’re not going to get it right the first time, or every time. Many of us find ourselves in situations where we are trying to understand a number of cultures within a short timespan as I experienced last week.

Leaders: When do you need to listen more and speak less? When do you need to give others a little space and grace?

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