- Sylvia Gonner
My Journey from Culture Clash to Global Synergy
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
From the day I left home, off to live far away in another country, it happened. At the time I just felt it, experienced it, not realizing it was something I would ever write about. It wasn’t a bad experience for me. I almost enjoyed it. Later in life I learned what it was called, that there was a definition for it in the dictionary. Culture clash: a conflict arising from the interaction of people with different cultural values.
Culture clash caused many confusing and awkward situations for me as a foreign student settling into the United States of America. It was overwhelming at first. I was making so many mistakes because of misguided assumptions about a country I had only observed from a distance, mainly from movies and TV shows. I was now eager to figure out why people in America had such different ways of life, perceptions of the world, and values driving their behaviors. I quickly learned that solving the daily puzzles of this new culture required careful observation and reflection on each situation I faced. I was practicing mindfulness before that was even a popular thing! Honestly, I really liked and welcomed the challenges, and –come to find out– it’s that attitude, that curiosity and openness, that turned out to be my strongest assets to effectively handle the culture clash. Learning to adapt became a way of life.
But still, I was a young, naïve foreigner who hadn’t anticipated quite how challenging the adjustment would be. That became crystal clear about a month after I arrived in Miami when my first night going out turned into a total disaster. I had made plans to meet a university classmate, a young man I thought was just a new friend, who’d suggested we go out to dinner and a nightclub. I was so excited to discover Miami by night! How was I supposed to know that he thought we were going on “a date,” and that there was a protocol for this “dating” ritual between men and women in America, a concept totally foreign to me at the time?
Today, I laugh about it when I remember how I insisted on paying for my own dinner at the restaurant (just like my parents had taught me), without any success mind you! And how later at the nightclub, when he announced “I don’t dance,” I left him sitting alone at the bar and went by myself on the dance floor quickly surrounded by other boys who took turns grabbing my hands so I wouldn’t be dancing alone. Needless to say, the evening didn’t go as planned. He was upset. I was confused. When I had accepted his invitation, I didn’t realize what was implied and expected, as I was unaware of the dating dos and don’ts that Americans learn from a young age. Where I grew up in Europe, a man and a woman can go out together as friends, and women can pay for their own meals and dance alone if they want to.
Which culture had the right or the wrong way, the better way? My first instinct was to judge these “foreign” behaviors as chauvinistic and outdated. That’s until I had the courage to talk to him to understand his point of view. He explained that he was a Southern boy, taught above all to be a gentleman and that my insistence on paying felt like a personal rejection to him. I told him that I was taught not to accept favors from a man I just met or he might expect something in return. And I shared with him my experiences from back home where most of my closest friends were males. It took me some empathy to respect where he was coming from, but having that knowledge about his upbringing, values, and feelings really helped explain the vast gap in our assumptions and expectations that dreadful night. With that dialogue we both learned to accept our differences. We never went out together again.
That lesson –to never assume other have the same reference point– was priceless, but I still didn’t know how to deal with these differences. To this day I struggled with the notion that men in the States are expected to pay for everything on a date. This contradicts my values that we are equals, and that it’s only fair we share costs. How could I remain authentic and true to my own values living in America while also learning to adapt? Still years later, I felt compelled to teach my American-born daughter to offer to pay for her share while on a date, but ultimately, out of respect for local norms, if a man insists on paying you graciously accept. Things are changing these days in the States too.
Over time I slowly figured out the cultural codesand was less and less confused by my teachers’ instructions and my friends’ jokes. I thought I’d learned to stretch my comfort zone and had overcome the worst of the culture clash until after graduation I landed my first professional job in America working for an international non-profit. Suddenly the daily cultural puzzles were back, and in this business setting, the conflicts this created reached new levels of complexity and consequences.
My first major assignment was to collaborate with our Japanese affiliate to organize a conference. I was very pleased with myself when the Japanese partners agreed with the project budget and timeline when we met face-to-face. But once they went back to Japan, I got frustrated when they remained slow and vague in their responses, seemingly unwilling to officially confirm our agreement. How could I explain this to my boss who expected me to navigate these foreign relations? I clearly didn’t know what I was doing! I’d never before dealt with the Japanese (or any Asian) culture. I spent hours researching Japanese cultural etiquette and business practices. I learned about their indirect and implicit communication style, the concept of “saving-face,” and their decision-making process by consensus. Their actions now all made sense! With a lot of patience, diplomacy and respect for their ways of operating, I eventually secured their project approval and funding in writing! My boss was pleased and I had learned my first international business lessons: expect everything to be different and do your research.
As years passed, working in international relations with people from many cultures and traveling around the world, I’ve done my share of research and learning about other cultures. My favorite pastime is striking up conversations with random strangers in airports, cafés, and hotel lobbies to inquire about their ways of life. I’ve learned the value of relationship-building and make a point of interacting with business colleagues on a personal level, getting to know them, asking lots of questions. It’s still hard not to judge what is different from my values sometimes, but I know I have to listen to understand the beliefs that drive other people’s thinking and behaviors. Knowing why people act the way they do is the key to help me appreciate our differences and continue to learn and grow.
I’m no longer that young, first-time expat who just landed in a new country. Over time, I’ve embraced my transformation, often changed my ways of thinking, and developed a more global mindset. Yet despite being an experienced interculturalist who now trains and mentors others professionally, I still make mistakes dealing with the occasional culture clash and conflict. Just recently while visiting my family in Luxembourg, I got frustrated learning all pharmacies were closed on a holiday and couldn’t get medicine for a strong pollen allergy I’d suddenly developed. I can’t blame my sister for rolling her eyes at me when I rudely uttered “How could this country still prioritize holidays over offering a basic service like 24h pharmacies!?” I should know better than to be judgmental about a country’s entire value system! In my defense, it was the pain speaking. We laughed it off but clearly, it’s a life-long journey to stretch my comfort zone and embrace what’s different.
So, is the ultimate goal to manage culture clashes and learn to adapt? My upbringing at the heart of the European Union showed me there’s more. Those of us who live and work across cultures want more. Today, after years of facilitating countless projects and collaborations with people across multiple countries I’ve seen first-hand the unique added value in global diversity. When we learn to combine diverse viewpoints and approaches, together we can produce something very special. Synergy: unique results far superior than the mere sum of their separate parts. Creating synergy is like a jig-saw puzzle where all pieces, with their different shapes and sizes find ways to complement each other, together creating something unique none could do on their own.
One of my goals with CultureWiz is to help organizations and people who work across cultures to create synergy. I’m convinced it’s the best future for our interconnected world – we are better together!