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Cultural Competence: looking at others by looking at ourselves

Cultural competences

The ancient Greek civilization had a saying that was so important to them it was written at the entrance of the great temple of Apollo. It said "γνωθι σεαυτόν", which is basically translated "know yourself". This is wise advice when researching and learning about different cultures. Take a look in the mirror and get to know yourself. It is how other cultures view you at a first glance.

In recent years, many articles circulated through the web, giving advice to non-americans who want to adapt to the American culture. Also, on its latest number, “1843” magazine published a piece narrating the cultural shock in store for Chinese students who apply to American Universities (https://www.1843magazine.com/features/the-long-march-from-china-to-the-ivies). Seen as a luxury, most wealthy Chinese families want their kids to have an Occidental education, but as they go through the process of application, things sometimes get very difficult, if not impossible. Aside from regular exams, which are not a problem for students who are used to devoting 14 or 16 hours daily to study, the biggest complexity for the Chinese are the more personal documents, such as the “Statement of Purpose,” or the “Cover Letter.” All things that we often take for granted. Indeed, when they are asked to write essays to show skills and qualities that are highly valued in the US and Western culture but not taught or esteemed in their Eastern culture – such as individuality, critical thinking, competitive spirit, or even to describe what sets them apart from the rest - most Chinese students struggle, because they are uncertain what to write about. On a less serious note, a list made by Russians for Russians visiting US also states that Americans are "very optimistic", and “are taught from a young age that they're awesome." (http://mentalfloss.com/article/63896/17-russian-travel-tips-visiting-america)

These are topics that deserve more than a passing glance – some deeper analysis.

How central are these characteristics for us? Why do some people view them as stereotypical? Where can we see them and how they can facilitate or impede a good business negotiation? Cultural Competence, in this way, is not only about being "American-centric" and trying to translate or understand others through our own cultural context, but also it is about looking deep inside and try to understand how some features of our own experience evolve into our culture. For example, how is it that being competitive is a commonly held value within our DNA, and how does that way of thinking leads us to appreciate or be dismissive of other cultures where that character trait is not valued. In this way, one of the central concepts we have to incorporate is that culture is something we live in, not something other people have. Our culture is our frame, the way we experience things and the way we can acknowledge and interpret the things we learn. Most of the time is harder to learn about ourselves than to learn about others.

Learning about our past, and about how we came to believe the things we consider "normal" or "indisputable" gives us an indispensable tool to coexist and negotiate through different contexts, foreign and national. Being able to understand how common sense is constructed culturally will give you an advantage when it comes to better accommodate the terms of a contract, a working group or a business deal.