So lots of issues surround culture training: the expense of providing it, the expense of not providing it; finding the time to conduct it, finding the time to fix problems caused by not having it, etc. To say nothing of doing a quality job or even understanding what a quality job really even is in an area as wide-ranging as cultural training!
Whenever thinking of culture training, I’m always reminded of two quotes:
“Culture is in everything, even in how a mother holds her newborn.”(Unknown)
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” (Lao Tzu, 780 – 490 BC)
Both encapsulate the inherent problems of providing cultural training about China. First, we’re talking about a 5,000 year old culture here. To suggest that even a few hours of instruction is going to provide more than the merest scratch across the surface is being wildly optimistic. Second, our typical vision of training is that there’s a start, a middle, and an end, a model that can lull an expatriating manager into thinking that they’ve got everything under control when they most definitely have not. Third, learning about cultures is essentially about openness and receptivity to new things and ways of analyzing and explaining behaviors … and openness isn’t necessarily teachable.
A small digression… One day shortly after arriving in China, I was on the way out of the foreigner housing compound heading to the office. At the compound gate, a Chinese worker came up out of the sewer, evidently after some maintenance, clad only in blue bikini underwear, flip flops, and nothing else and was then hosed off by a fellow worker. At the office I mentioned this to a Chinese colleague in that tone of semi-horror that new expats often use when confronting something new and “strange.”
My friend responded using some very un-Chinese body language that meant oh-good-grief-another-one-of-those-dumb-foreigner-questions and said “But, Mark, that’s so he won’t get his clothes dirty.” Which, after thinking about that response for a bit, makes some sense in that a worker making perhaps $150 USD a month and supporting a family likely does not have a vast wardrobe or a washing machine.
So how to effectively teach (or learn) such a different perspective?
Most cultural training courses provide some good basics but expats who want to truly be effective in their new assignment s need to move beyond the basics.
A future week: Cultural coaching. This topic was suggested by some of you, so please feel free to add comments or thoughts or your own experiences below.