16 Jul 2015 17:48 IST

Flatten those stereotypes

What needs well-rounding are intercultural adaptation skills

We had a Japanese client in the Global Adjustments office the other day. As usual, we greeted him in Japanese — saying irrashaimase or Welcome and konnichi wa or Good Day; and we bowed in the correct style, women with their hands folded in front, men with their hands at the side.

We expected him to be pleased and impressed, as expat clients usually tend to be when we show them we’ve taken the trouble to learn a little about their native land and its customs. But this gentleman seemed to take it very casually.

We told him about India and the many languages we have, and how we all know a bit of several other languages, including foreign ones. And he told us a story of his own — a funny anecdote about the first sentence he learnt in Hindi. It was “tum kahan se aake tapke ho?” which, roughly translated, means, “Where have you fallen from?” — not your average polite greeting.

We were dumbstruck when we found out that this Japanese gentleman was no stranger to India — he had studied at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, for four years, and worked in Bangalore for three more. He was well-versed in Hindi and was conversant with India’s cultural heritage. So, when a Japanese company was looking to fill a senior position in Chennai, he was a natural choice.

Unfounded assumptions

The incident set all of us thinking. Our mistake was to go with stereotypical assumptions: here’s a foreigner who would be impressed by the effort we are making to learn the ways of his world. He would also know nothing about India, so we must make an effort and teach him. Little did we know that this man was already versed with our ways. Also, we assumed he knew nothing about India.

We realised that there are too many of these assumptions in the world today and we can improve sensitivity only by minimising, if not doing away with such assumptions.

We are all prone to making stereotypical assumptions about others based on their nationalities, genders, religions. For instance, I have heard it said that Germans are mechanically efficient and lacking in a sense of humour; Italians are thought of being big lovers of food and as being excitable; the English are portrayed as emotionless, while the French are seen as suave and overly interested in clothes and their appearance. I have also heard it reported that Jews are tight-fisted, and women are spoken of as poor drivers. As you read this list, we can both gather how unfounded such stereotypical classifications are.

It is time we unlearnt these assumptions and got into relationships with open minds. To do this, we need to take some steps.

Adapt the view

We need to train ourselves to see things not as we are and think, but as they are. The Swastika is a great example of this. To the Indian, it means shubh, something auspicious, while to the European, it immediately brings to mind the horrors of the Nazi regime.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and try to understand, from the point of view of his culture or nationality, how something may sound or appear.

See if what we said or did was understood as we meant it to be. To ensure this, we need to ask a few questions; don’t presume or assume. Even a simple gesture or the use of a particular phrase could cause problems, so watch for the listener’s expressions and sort it out harmoniously.

For example, there is this phrase — ‘the trailing spouse’ — that I first came across when I was in the US. Asked to address a women’s group of expats here in India, I used the phrase in my speech. Much later, I learnt I had offended them as they found the phrase ‘trailing spouse’ offensive — they preferred the word ‘supporting spouse’. The irony was that it was a phrase I’d learnt in the US, and had used it in a gathering of people there. The problem was that I had not updated myself. From the experience, I learnt the importance of keeping in touch with evolving connotations of words and behaviour patterns.

Keep up with the times

Keeping up to date is what is required in today’s world. We may be good at Globish — a portmanteau word made using Global and English — formalised by Jean-Paul Nerriere, who describes it as the common ground that non-native speakers of English use for international business communication. But we also need to get rid of preconceived ideas and keep up with current and changing connotations of words and actions; to ensure that we are sensitive to a multihued ever changing world.

What needs flattening are stereotypes, and what needs well-rounding are intercultural adaptation skills.