Recently, while waiting for a flight at London Heathrow airport, I overheard a group of young professionals having a discussion about culture and identity. One woman, I’ll call her “Sue”, was expressing her frustration about how some people make assumptions about her nationality. Sue is of Korean descent. Her mother is originally from South Korea and Sue was born in the US and she grew up in South Carolina. She identifies culturally as a US American and I also heard her saying that she has difficulty relating to her mother’s South Korean origins because she, personally, has no experience of it. There is obviously much more to Sue’s situation and sense of identity than what was expressed in the airport lounge, but her frustration is not uncommon.
As mentioned in my February article, culture is learned and nurtured. In his book, “Perception and Identity in Intercultural Communication”, Marshall Singer writes “Learning who we are and how we do things and how we see the world occurs in much the same manner as learning our first language. We just hear words over and over again, and gradually – very gradually – we come to identify those words with particular meanings. In the same way we also learn the attitudes, values and belief systems our parents and other group elders teach us.”
Our learned identity influences the “lenses” or filters through which we view the world and how we perceive others. Developing cultural self-awareness helps us to avoid stereotyping and making assumptions and this in turn can serve as a valuable step towards connecting effectively and productively with our clients.
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Jan O’Brien IAC-MCC www.culture-conscious.com