My artistic struggle is that I can play piano very well for myself, my wife, and family. When it comes to playing “for” others, anxiety is my worst enemy. Anxiety has a powerful ability to derail procedural memory. When I performed publicly as a youth, I remember sitting down at the piano to perform a piece by memory, and then not even knowing how the piece started or how to figure it out. The anxiety froze my procedural memory and the only way out was to try to relax, visualize the explicit aspects of the music in order to get started, and then hope that the procedural memory would comfortably kick in for the rest of the piece. If I was not able to get back on track through memory, I would ask to see my sheet music for a refresher and then dive in. Such experiences are terrifying and I’ve had my share…
Again, applying to leadership and culture, I believe we can freeze up when we face an anxiety producing setting. The only difference is that in leadership and culture, some of us (myself included) feel we have to proceed, faking it along the way and hoping that others don’t recognize. As you can see in this comparison, you couldn’t get away with faking it on the piano. However, when we freeze in leadership or cultural interaction, many of us just blunder ahead rather than saying, “You know, I really don’t know where to start. Can you give me a little help in understanding what to do?”
Increasing cultural proficiency starts with a realization that we all have unique ways of living and interacting with others matched with curiosity about how other’s ways work for them. Living in Qatar for seven years offered the opportunity to interact across very different cultures on a regular basis. In the early days of being there, and privileged by the belief that I was expected to bring my perspective and expertise, I made many blunders. Fortunately, colleagues would comment good-naturedly that “You are so American.” At first I didn’t understand what that meant but I gradually overcame my own blindness to see the details of how others interacted with each other. I eventually came to adopt a habit of reading each encounter I had with a cultural lens, reflecting with, “What is the same or different about this encounter and what must I do if I want to “connect” with the other person?
An example of seeking to “connect” more effectively can be found in determining whether to speak up or stand down in cross-cultural interactions. Many Americans and some from other “Western” cultural backgrounds place great value on speaking one’s mind and forthrightly offering our perspectives. This view is related to lots of things, among them are individualism, assertiveness, and a belief in the value of freedom of speech. Other cultures, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, view speaking up as potentially disrespectful of others, self-oriented, or inviting scrutiny that could reveal imperfection. The natural tendency of an American, regardless of cultural context, would likely be to speak up quickly and directly. Unfortunately, this can result in others being unresponsive to what might have been otherwise a very helpful idea. A choice to stand down, listen to others first, recognize the value of other’s contributions, and then offer an enhancing perspective would most likely be much better received.
What many refer to as “culture shock” is in essence “freezing up” in the face of the anxiety of being in a cultural context that we do not understand. In that moment, we face a realization that something is not working and we don’t know where to turn. I am not sure it applies to all cultures, but my experience in Qatar was filled with gracious hosts who were more than happy to help me in those “freezing up” moments and I grew to know that I could always turn to one of them to say, “I really don’t know where to start. Can you give me a little help in understanding what to do?”
Molinsky’s (2013) cultural dexterity model is very helpful when thinking about how to establish authentic communication and appreciation across cultures. His view is to know one’s own cultural inclinations, seek to understand that of others, and adapt (without compromising the essence) your own style in order to be able to relate effectively with others. There is striking confirmation across learning music, leadership, and culture – study carefully and deeply, understand the bits and pieces, keep an eye on both the small and big picture, seek authenticity, and find a place that represents being “at home” that allows you to perform at your best.