When I first moved countries, I was worried that I had suddenly lost all my appreciation for humour. I thought I loved a good laugh and I’ve been known to fall off my seat laughing my ass out. But I just didn’t find many Kiwi jokes funny at all. Everybody in the room would laugh hysterically to jokes that obviously went over my head. I felt like a fish out of water. “I don’t get it,” I would think to myself while I make an effort to laugh sheepishly – which is always a risky move for someone just trying to avoid awkward moments. Many times, you end up laughing too much or too little or inappropriately and the joke’s on you.
All jokes aside, it was more than just my sense of humour that became questionable. I sometimes misunderstood seemingly straightforward statements, gestures or even silence. Did I mention that I married a Kiwi? Well, that drove it home for me really quickly.
Context is everything
You see, culture is a powerful thing. And often, it takes experiencing a different culture to what we’ve always known to realise how fundamentally our culture affects our beliefs, ideals and the quality of life we lead, good or bad. Reading books like The Cultural Map by Erin Meyer helped me understand how to make sense of things and get stuff done as the fish who have chosen to live in a tree. If you live and work with people from diverse cultural backgrounds like me, one of the essential skills you could ever have is excellent intercultural communication. That’s why I continue to consciously invest in learning how to get better at it.
Communication is an integral part of every culture, and cultures are often deeply embedded in stories. These stories provide context. For example, you could lose someone in a conversation if you caution them to “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” but they’re unaware of the Trojan horse story reference. If that were to happen, it wouldn’t be a language comprehension problem; it would be a lack of context issue.
“Separate text from context and all that remains is a con.”― Stewart Stafford
Different strokes for different folks
I am from the Yoruba race – a sophisticated and proud heritage that originated from the Southwestern part of Nigeria. The Yorubas are high context people with whom I lived the first 31 years of my life and will always share my identity. With dozens of dialects across several kingdoms, the fairly-difficult-to-master Yoruba language is spoken by roughly 40 million people.
If you were born into it, you’d grow up subconsciously learning how to make sense of ambiguity and gestures and almost always draw an accurate inference from seemingly simple but often loaded lines. This is a reasonably tricky skill to master and can be quite confusing for non-native speakers. The Yoruba elite use of proverbs as a tool for effective communication amongst one another is most remarkable. Philosophical morals culled from myths and legends; these ancient proverbs have been passed down the generations through storytelling, like the Trojan horse story in the example above. The tone of voice or gestures could end a person’s life. However, sometimes, the most important thing to listen to is the message in silence. And yes, they do speak louder than words.
In low context cultures, it would only make sense to be silent if you’re not expected to respond. Otherwise, there’s no point keeping mute as people would often keep repeating the same thing to you until you’ve answered. Silence would be obscene when people are sure that you heard them, and you’re not speech impaired. Where I’m from, your answer might just be in the silence.
To make an excellent first impression in the Western world, you have to stand straight and look people in the eyes while you give them a firm handshake. In the traditional Yoruba setting, it would be considered rude to stare into the eyes of your superiors or extend your hands to them first for a handshake. Even when they do offer their handshake, you are expected to bend your body forward or prostrate as a man (the lower, the better) or bend the knees as a woman to show respect.
In a group, a Yoruba can be slow to speak and is often a highly considered speaker, especially in the presence of superiors. When they talk, they are careful not to go against anything that has been said by the superior, even when they disagree. If they can’t let go of their sentiment, it is the right thing to seek to discuss it with such a superior privately. However, this might come across as being shady or lacking in confidence or substance to people from some different culture.
Transcending cultural borders
In its intrinsic nature, I don’t believe that one culture is superior or inferior to another – And that’s not the purpose of this piece. But from personal experiences, it is clear to me that the culture we’re accustomed to can cripple our effectiveness, especially while dealing with humans from a different culture at work or in our personal day-to-day lives. To transcend such cultural borders or limitations that may get in the way of achieving our end goals, we need to evolve ourselves and make a deliberate effort to learn as much as we can about the cultures we interact with.
“When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less.”― Erin Meyer
I have to admit, it’s not an easy thing to do, but you get better at it. It takes a conscious effort to detach from your preconceived ideas and cultural frame of mind and focus solely on understanding the other. As a reward, your experiences become richer and your perspectives more balanced when you treat cultural diversity as an asset. For me, the more I learn about New Zealand and other cultures and the people, the more of a “cultural fit” I become, the better my ability to get things done, and of course, the funnier Kiwi jokes get.