The Fish Who Lives in a Tree: Transcending Cultural Borders

The Fish Who Lives in a Tree - Transcending Cultural Borders

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. On many occasions, seemingly straightforward statements or gestures made zero sense to me. 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 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 critical response is the message in the silence. And yes, they do speak louder than words.

It will only make sense to be silent in low context cultures if you’re not expected to respond. Otherwise, there’s no point in keeping mute as people would often keep repeating the same thing to you using different words to ensure you get it. Your silence would be rude when people are confident that you heard them and are not speech impaired. Where I’m from, your answer might 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/and extend your hands to them first for a handshake. When they do offer their handshake if they do, 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 person can be slow to speak and is often a highly considered speaker, especially in the presence of superiors. When they talk, they are often careful not to go against anything said or supported by the superior, even when in disagreement. If they can’t let go of their sentiment, seeking to discuss it privately might yield a better outcome. However, this might be met with a “why didn’t you say…” response from people of different cultures and could be [mis]interpreted as lacking confidence or substance.

Transcending cultural borders

In its intrinsic nature, I do not 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 while dealing with humans from a different culture at work or in our personal day-to-day lives. To transcend the limitations of such cultural borders, 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

It takes a conscious effort to resist the natural tendencies to interpret things from one’s cultural frame of reference and focus solely on understanding the other from their perspective. It’s not an easy thing to do, but you get better at it with practice. 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 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.

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  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences and learnings Gideon. I appreciate you educating me on your Yoruba heritage and culture.

  2. So good Gideon! I have often had similar experiences while travelling, but only as a tourist, not as a new citizen. You’re a pathfinder, an amazing colleague and an excellent person to know.