Have you ever had a nagging thought? A thought that stays with you when you wake up and one that keeps you up at night? One you couldn't push away no matter how hard you tried? You know what I’m talking about?
Well for me that thought has always been, "how does one effectively connect across cultures?" I wanted to know the answer to this question because for much of my childhood and adult life, I wondered what it was like to be seen, to be heard and to be understood for who I was. For who I am. And not because I had a bad childhood. I had a great parents. I HAVE great parents. They always did the best they could. I had this thought because of what was going on around me.
See I’m from Nigeria and in the first 9 years of my life we were under two military dictatorships. A lot of what I witnessed growing up was ruthless suppression of opponents, muzzling of the press, and countless human rights violations. This was further complicated by the fact that Nigeria is a country with at least 250 ethnic groups, each group constantly seeking ethnic domination as many were ingeniously excluded from positions of national leadership.
So when the day came for Nigeria to transition into civilian rule, you can imagine how anxious, excited and skeptical I was feeling. I mean a part of me wasn't sure that it would actually happen. I remember the day like it was yesterday. May 29, 1999. I was sitting down with my parents and my brother on the very colorful couch that we owned and as I watched General Abdulsalami Abubakar hand over power to Olusegun Obasanjo, that thought creeped up again.
How does one effectively connect across cultures?
Here was a man tasked with the responsibility to unite a bunch of people who have grown to distrust each other for decades! I was curious.
How does one effectively connect across cultures?
Little did I know that I would soon get my first clue to the answer of this question. A year after watching the inauguration of Obasanjo, my dad's job as a diplomat took us to Burkina Faso. So now I found myself as this skinny Nigerian kid with a strong Nigerian accent in a French speaking country in an American international school going through puberty!
Yup! So in a place where people were already different, I felt different.
I mean this was the first time I really remember seeing white people outside of my television screen.
So I looked around for ways to connect. My default to do that had always been sports and back then, the only sport I played was soccer. However, I saw that most people played basketball so I did what any 10/11 year old would do when you want to learn a new sport.
I went to the library!
Yup, I checked out all the books I could find on basketball. I found out that there were two doctors in basketball. There was Dr. Naismith who invented basketball and Dr. J who played for the Sixers. I checked out the latest Sports Illustrated for Kids magazines to familiarize myself with the current basketball players.
And once, I felt like I knew everything there was to know about the sport, I decided I needed to know how to apply what I learned so I went to the best basketball player I knew, Michael Albright and asked him nervously if he could help. I was like, “ Uhh, Michael. I know everything about the game BUT can you teach me how to actually play it”. Thankfully, he said yes and our 1 on 1's became 2 on 2’s, then 3 on 3’s, then 4 on 4’s, and then 5 on 5’s.
All of a sudden, it didn’t matter where we all came from. I had a Taiwanese teammate, an American teammate, an Ivorian teammate, a Dutch teammate, and a Cameroonian teammate and we had a common goal. That was to win.
A common goal. That was my first clue.
Establishing mutual purpose is so key when you want to connect across cultures and we'll talk about this later on BUT on that court, what we were learning to do was how to leverage our differences to work together.
That one experience opened my eyes to the possibility of what a world could look like if we connected across differences. It also led me down this quest of exploring different environments to find out the best ways to forge these connections and build bridges.
I did all this not only because of my background as someone that was now going to be a minority everywhere he went but also because I firmly believe that learning how to connect across cultures is how all of us can change the world.
If we look around us today, we can see that due to the internet, migration patterns and new markets that keep popping up, we are experiencing a whole new world. The intersections of markets, customers, ideas, religions and world views are shifting and influencing our priorities today and will continue to influence them tomorrow.
Essentially, leaders of today and tomorrow must know how to succeed with all these differences. The world is changing and that’s a reality that we all have to deal with so instead of resisting, we must seek to understand so the we can leverage our differences the right way.
The quest I have taken for the last 18 years led me to the answer of the question that had plagued me most of my life.
The type of people that know how to effectively connect across cultures do three things!
They Don’t Perpetuate,
Instead, They Communicate.
And that's what i'm going to teach you all today. How do these three things the right way so you take advantage of the globalization and the digitalization that is going on around us.
True education to me involves a few things. IQ, EQ & CQ. Intelligence Quotient, Emotional Intelligence, and Cultural Intelligence. Reason being that this allows us to get a better sense of who we truly are, how others see us, how we fit into the world around us, and the implications of our actions.
Essentially, what we are after here is education of ourselves and education of our environments.
If we don't know who we are, we won't be able to know what to work on in order to become better communicators and leaders so let's get into how you can dissect your internal culture and understand that. This starts with understanding your biases. More specifically your unconscious biases.
Bias is an inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group. Unconscious bias are unconscious feelings we have towards other people and groups. Having bias doesn't automatically make us racist or sexist. They are human emotions and ways for us to make decisions in life. Bias allows us to make short cuts as we go about our days and acts as a filter.
While this emotion is not always negative, examining your own possible biases is an important step to understanding the roots of stereotypes and prejudice in our society. These biases inform EVERY decision we make today (your teaching, your hiring, your firing, your promoting, marketing and policies we create).
Given that knowledge, are you ready to examine your biases?
Ok awesome! I want you to do something for me. Grab a pen or your phone and write out these three questions. Make sure you leave enough space for a paragraph underneath these questions.
- The first question I want you to write and answer is what have your experiences been?
- The second question is what stereotypes, prejudices and biases do you hold right now?
- And the last question is how much have you strayed outside of your comfort zone?
Ok so underneath the what have your experiences been question, answer the following questions.
Who are your three best friends? (Be thorough please. Who do they look like? What do they believe in? What do you bond over or argue about? What are their orientations, religion, genders)
Now think about the last three places you’ve lived in. What are the characteristics of those places are?
Who are the last people you’ve been in relationships with? (What do they look like? What do they believe? What do you bond over or argue about?)
I asked all these questions to show you where your biased opinions might have been formed, where your preferences might have come from and my hope is that you're able to see how some of the decisions you make today are based on your experiences. I also wanted to give you insight into who makes up your sphere of influence and what your exposure levels has been has been thus far.
Got it? Now let’s go on to the second question.
What stereotypes, prejudices and biases do you hold right now?
In this question, you’re thinking about two questions: "Why do I think this way about this group or people?” and “What do I feel when I am in front of people I am prejudiced against?
Is it because of fear — a preventative measure based on a bad experience?
Is it because of security — a crutch that helps you feel better about yourself?
Is it avoidance — a way to dodge difficult situations with groups you don’t understand or that make you uncomfortable?
Fear, security and avoidance are three of the major reasons we hold biases. Which is your reason?
The last question is how much have you strayed outside of your comfort zone
What I want you to measure here is how often you put yourself in a position where you are the minority in a group on a weekly basis? Very often, often, sometimes, rarely or never.
All these questions allow you to challenge your biases, correct them and get used to equally as good alternatives.
We can't overcome anything if we are not aware of them
Notice I said equally as good alternatives because the idea here is to show you that your way isn't the only way.
Understanding what your internal culture is gives you insight into how your behavior affects others. It also gives you insight into the in groups and out groups that exist around you. Basically, who you unintentionally exclude in social settings.
Generally we create relationships with people who are most like us and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. But the dangerous thing that could happen is that if we ONLY do this, we can end up creating a reinforcing cycle because our comfort zones gets fortified and once it’s fortified, our experiences remain largely the same. If our experiences remain largely the same, stereotypes are formed.
So CHANGE YOUR EXPERIENCES!
Now that you've done the hard work of understanding yourself, your thoughts and why you think the way you do, it's time to educate yourself on the environments around you.
How do you do that? By
Learning how to collect and gather information
Becoming an active listener, and
Being an active part of your community
So let’s talk about collecting and gathering information. I said earlier that my dad was a diplomat and so because of his job, we were always moving. By the time I was freshman in college, I had lived in 5 countries and 4 continents and with every move, I would observe my dad as he sought to understand his new environments and establish relationships.
I watched him try to maintain international relations with regards to issues of peace, war, trade, economics, culture, the environment, and human rights. I also observed as he sought to establish common ground with his colleagues locally and internationally. His morning routine before he went to the office was to read the newspaper (back when we did that sort of thing), tune into the BBC, then CNN and then the local news stations.
So I would ask him, "dad why do you do these things?" and he responded with this: “Akintayo the world is bigger than you and if you want to succeed you have to understand it.”
The world is bigger than you and if you want to succeed in it you have to understand it.
He was basically trying to understand the differences around him and find the commonalities that existed within them.
Common ground again!!!
So how do you all apply this to your everyday life?
Well remember when you were identifying your biases as you were improving your self-awareness to acknowledge the cultures or groups of people you felt uncomfortable around? Now it’s time to work through those feelings.
Take a look at the surroundings of the groups of people you’re uncomfortable around and pay attention to what makes them smile, frown and flock together.
Make note of all these things, put them aside and then read about the history, culture and current events surrounding the cultures you’re investigating. As you start to do this you'll start to begin the process of humanizing people that you usually feel uncomfortable around.
Once you've done that, the second thing you can do to understand the environment around you is to become an active listener. Research shows that we only retain between 25 to 50% of what we hear. It’s no wonder a lot of us don’t understand each other right?
Just look at today’s climate.
Republican vs. Democrat
Immigrant vs non immigrant
Nationalist vs. Internationalist
Friends fans vs. Seinfeld fans
So much us vs. them!
And I get it! We all like to think we are right but are we willing to put all that pride aside?
Just for the moment
So we can truly listen and not just listening. I am talking about active listening.
What’s actively listening?
- Listening to learn
- Listening to evaluate AND
- Listening to understand
Another way to be an active listener ironically is to ask questions. Not just any type of questions too. Ask open ended and clarifying questions instead of leading questions.
These questions are what uncover emotions. They allow others to tell you their stories. It lets them tell you how THEY interpret the world.
When you treat people the way THEY want to be treated and not how YOU FEEL they should be treated, you're onto something magical.
Once you’ve done this and you’ve listened to their thoughts, It's time to seek alignment.
Where is the alignment?
Find it and frame your conversation by speaking to the values you both have.
It takes a lot of concentration and determination to be an active listener so ask questions, reflect, and paraphrase to ensure you understand the message. Listen to what’s been said and what isn’t. If you don't, then you'll find that what someone says to you and what you hear can be amazingly different!
The third thing that you can do to understand the environment around you is to be an active part of your community. In your current community, do you know about the different types people that live in it, do you know the socioeconomic makeup of it or how the same set of laws affect different types of people in your community? If you don’t I’ll encourage you to work on that.
Personally, I got my start with this type of behavior when my eighth grade teacher, Miss. McDonald made us learn all the countries, capitals and bodies of water in the world. When we asked her why this was important, she told us that if we wanted to be global citizens, we needed to understand the actual globe. She also said it would make us more curious.
In the spirit of her challenge to us back then, I’d like you all to challenge yourselves by building your curiosity muscles. Seek to know what’s going on outside the walls of your comfort zone. Pick up a new language. Make a commitment to travel to new communities Regularly. Volunteer in the inner cities. When you travel, don't just go to the tourist spots, embed yourself with the locals. At work or in school, join an affinity group or club that you know nothing about.
Like my dad said, the world is bigger than you and if you want to succeed in it, you have to understand it.
Doing all this allows you to build empathy and become a perspective taker which means you'll be able to temporarily suspend your own point-of-view in an attempt to view a situation as someone else might.
Once you educate yourself on who you are and the environment, you start to understand what will cause the other person to feel understood and that different perspectives matter.
Now that you have worked on your knowledge, it’s time to make sure you don’t perpetuate stereotypes. I’ll give you an example of what can happen if you perpetuate stereotypes. When I first came to the United States for college in 2007, I was this 17 years old freshman with a mostly American accent and so when I told people I was Nigerian, they wouldn’t believe me because they had a different idea of what an African looked like.
I would then ask them, well, what does an African look like?
They’d retort with something like you should be blacker and your English is too good!
Hmm… So I’d say you do realize that Africa is large continent with people that have different pigmentations right?
It’s a continent with 54 countries. Some of which were colonized by the United Kingdom hence my English.
But they weren’t done. They’d ask:
Did you live in a hut? Nope
Do you have cars? Yes
Did you sleep with Monkeys growing up? No, NO, NO, NOT A THING!
And then out of nowhere some guy upon hearing I was Nigerian put his two hands up to carry something imaginary and starting belting out Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba
This dude was straight up doing Lion King and had the nerve to laugh.
I looked at him, shook my head and said wrong region bro. I’m from Nigeria which is in West Africa and the Lion King was based in East Africa.
And then he made a clicking noise with his mouth and again I said to him. wrong region bro. That’s a tribe in South Africa. Once again. I’m from West Africa.
Again and again people would do things like these in gest or out of sheer curiosity.
Now, initially I was of course mad but then I started to see that 90% of the people asking me these questions were genuinely curious and I began to get less mad and use those moments as educational opportunities but these experiences gave me an insight to a couple of things:
- like how many of us reinforce stereotypes daily with jokes AND
- how many of us trivialize stories of identity that are super important to people we may not come into regular contact with
What my college mates were doing when they were making those statements to me knowingly or unknowingly was perpetuating stereotypes. They were translating pieces of information they had received growing up and using me as a guinea pig to test out all the jokes they had heard about or ask questions they were curious about. But what happens if a kid sees his father or mother do that?
That kid then goes on to do the same thing to his/her circle of influence and the cycle of false narratives begin. This is a VERY hard cycle to break once it starts going.
Now this doesn’t just lend itself to race stereotypes. I don’t know if you heard but there was an election in the United States a little over a year ago.
Yup, took the world by storm.
On one end we had republicans and on the other hand, we had the democrats. We even had a large group of people who didn’t identify with either so lots of dissension was in the ranks.
However, one of the things that all sides could agree on was this. There was a lot of false information going around. Fake news.
There are several studies that show that thousands of people fell for the allure of completely fabricated news. In fact, Google had to banish more than 200 sites from its adsense network and change its news feed algorithm to combat this.
There’s a whole industry built on click bait news so we need to be better fact checkers and be careful where we get our information from. It is our responsibility to be engaged as global citizens and more importantly accept the idea that multiple perspectives can be right.
Fake news leads to incomplete stories and watered down history lessons. If we don't address these, they have the potential to reinforce dangerous beliefs and create echo chambers.
Basically you end up only being exposed to things that confirm your beliefs. We have to fight this because lies like these can be weaponized into dangerous messages of propaganda and division.
So how do we get better at fact checking and verifying our stories today? Here are some ways you can work on fixing the perpetuation problem we have today:
Pay attention to the domain and url of the site you're getting your news from. Does it reflect the title of the page you're looking at?
Read the About Us section. Who are the people behind the site? Can you find their bios to validate their work?
Look up the quotes in your articles and validate them. If there are no quotes behind the claims made, validate.
You could also use sites like snopes.com which does a great job of disproving myths and legends.
I also want you to honestly ask yourself these questions when you create content.
How often do you fact check your own content? Always, usually, sometimes, rarely or never?
How often to verify other writers’ work before sharing it? Always, usually, sometimes, rarely or never?
When citing a source, do you fact check the source? Always, usually, sometimes, rarely or never?
If we don’t do a better job of this, we create insider and outsider dynamics which promote unintentional exclusion.
What’s happens when insider and outsider dynamics occur?
Insiders are those who feel support, stability, and security from being in a group, who feel like their skillsets are optimized, and who feel that their contributions are valued.
Outsiders are those who want to have a sense of identity and understand that their contributions are not always valued, which typically leads to sub-optimization of their talents or identity.
Basically, insiders sometimes aren’t aware of the advantages they enjoy and continue to do things that operate in their best interests and Outsiders don’t want to be perceived as complainers or agitators so they go back and forth internally with how they should interact or react.
When false narratives are spread about different cultures or subcultures. You create systemic and societal rifts and therefore perpetuating.
That’s why it’s so important to start with knowledge of self and your environment so you know how to stop behaviors that unintentionally exclude people.
Let me illustrate this concept of insider outsider dynamics with an analogy. Consider what the world is like for left handed people. Almost everything including seats, utensils, scissors and sports equipment is designed for right-handed people. Right-handed people don’t think about this because it doesn’t affect them but the minority group of left-handers must deal with it daily.
Just because you don't experience something doesn't mean it doesn't happen to others.
A sense of belonging is something we all want to feel so are you robbing people of that feeling? Remember if you're part of the problem, you can be part of the solution.
Perpetuating contributes to systemic discrimination and inequalities people AND If you only learn and choose not to engage. You (perpetuate)
Now you might be saying to yourself. Look, i’ve educated myself. I’ve done my best not to perpetuate stereotypes and systems BUT I still have difficulty talking openly and expressing myself during difficult conversations. What about when I offend someone or we have different sets of beliefs and values?
I’m happy to tell you that you don’t have to choose between being honest and being effective.
Also, silence or avoidance is not the answer. It’s like the late Martin Luther King Jr. once said,
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”
So here’s what you should do. Rid yourself of that mindset that only gives you an option to either speak your mind or lose a friend.
Once you’ve done that. What you need to do next is to work towards finding a mutual purpose. Remember that basketball story I shared earlier? Our mutual purpose was winning. It’s the same thing with communication. Your goal should always be to find mutual purpose and shared meaning.
You can do this by examining your motives
Start internally and ask yourself these questions:
What do I really want out of this conversation?
What do I want from myself out of this conversation?
What do I want from the other party in this conversation?
What do I want from the relationship moving forward?
Got it? After all that, ask yourself this:
How will I behave if I really want these results?
This ensures that we stay focused on our goals and not our ego or pride.
It returns us to our original intention. Another reason to ask what you really want is that it allows you to take charge of your body.
Focus on what you really want from the interaction and how you will behave if you really want to achieve that result.
One of you may be thinking at this point. I can definitely see how this can help sometimes but it’s not enough. I can’t possibly control the other person especially when they aren’t reacting to me in a positive way.
Well chances are this is happening for a couple of reasons:
They don’t believe you care about their goals in the conversation and/or they don’t trust your motives.
As a result of this, one or both of you may start acting defensive or aggressive. If this is happening, your goal is to remind yourself that the key to having any conversation at all is ensuring that the environment is safe for all parties involved so here are a few things you can try to defuse conflict if you’re experiencing it.
Practice the “Yes And...” and step out of the content of the conversation .
Practicing Yes and...
Actors and comedians do this a lot when they are practicing improv. It’s a protocol that allows for anything to happen, and it goes like this. No matter what your fellow actors present to you, instead of negating it, belittling it, or disagreeing with it, your job is to say, “Yes, and…” or basically accept the scenario as it’s presented to you (regardless of where you wanted it to go), add to it and then volley it back. So it goes back and forth. Back and forth.
So “Yes” is the acknowledgement of receipt of information, not a blind agreement with the information. “And” is the pivot point with which you accept, react to and otherwise use/build on the idea that has been offered to you.
Key thing to note here is that this does not mean that you’re consenting. Rather, this approach is a device for understanding, creating open dialogue, and engaging in thoughtful, respectful disagreements.
This is how you get started with empathy. Empathy starts with shared values.
Let me illustrate this with an example: there are two people. One loves Cristiano Ronaldo and the other is not a fan.
Person 1 says, I hate Ronaldo. I think he’s too full of himself and he doesn’t care about others
Person 2 says, I love that you value compassion and selflessness , I also value compassion and selflessness. (this is the YES) here are some instances where Ronaldo showed compassion and selflessness. (This is the AND).
The energy of the conversation shifts from aggressive to conversational. Now both parties might not end up convincing the other but the tone is much less adversarial than it could have been.
What this does is let go of your own ego, causes you to be more open to other perspectives and as a result you’ll have more possibilities
Less Ego, More Openness, More Possibilities
The second thing you can do in situations like these is to step out of the content of the conversation. So basically you look for ways to make the environment safe and then step back in. Once safety is restored, you can talk about nearly anything.
To do this, you can say things like, "can we change gears for a minute?" Or "I’d like to talk about what happens when we are not in sync. It would be good to share what’s working and what isn’t."
Another thing you could say is this: "My goal isn’t to make you feel guilty, angry or sad and I certainly don’t want any of us to become defensive. What I’d really love is for us to come up with a solution that’s both satisfying for us in our relationship."
Do these and you’ll be on your path establishing mutual purpose and creating more safe environments.
The art of communication is the language of leadership. George Bernard Shaw once said “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” And I couldn’t agree more.
Educate, Don't Perpetuate. Instead Communicate.
Ladies and gentlemen, there are two reasons why people don’t believe they can change the world today. Fixed mindsets and limited world views.
We can’t afford to be shortsighted though because when you change the way you see things, the things you see change. Individuals with a fixed mindset seek to validate themselves. Individuals with a growth mindset focus on developing themselves.
The work to change the world does not end at the offices of law enforcement or governments. It begins with us, in our backyards, our families, our schools, our spheres of influence and our minds.
All of us are leaders in some shape or form and we are growing up amongst each other so our actions matter. You are symbols in some way. You can be symbols of love and hope or symbols of hate and intolerance.
So I want you all to be aware of the actions you take because what we all decide to do in public and private has the potential to influence policies today and tomorrow. Let’s make sure those actions are celebrating differences, finding common ground and being a voice for the voiceless. Let's practice courage.
To this point, one of my favorite comedians Hasan Minhaj said something in his Netflix stand up special Homecoming King that really struck me. He recounts a story in which his father tells him something he’ll never forget.
“Your courage to do what’s right has to be greater than your fear of getting hurt. So Hasan be brave, Hasan be brave”
History is made by those who have the courage to act and so my call to action for you all today is to educate, make sure you don’t perpetuate. Instead, communicate. The fact of the matter is you have a choice. You can choose to see a world and do nothing about it or you can choose to see a world that is hurting and participate by changing the narrative.
Whichever choice you make, you’re changing the world in some way. My hope is that you choose to do the latter. And so I end with this question.
Will you use your difference to make a difference?