I grew up in India, studied in the United States, and have worked in Denmark, England, France, Finland, Netherlands, New Zealand, and the States. This is not a path that I decided to follow at the onset of my journey; on the contrary, my entries into different cultures was a product of serendipity. The journey has been painful and stressful but as I reflect on my lived experience in these countries I have come to realize it is my experience in different cultures that has come to define who I am and has shaped my identity. I wish to share in this blog what I have learned from my cultural forays and despite the difficulties it has remarkably transformed me. I am now more confident, more self- aware, and have come to embrace the values of compassion and empathy.
I wish to share some of the lessons that I have learned, and how this learning has shaped my current identity. I grew up in India in a Hindu family. India is a collectivistic culture where the family plays an important role. It is a hierarchical culture where individual autonomy is not the operating norm. Deference to elders is both expected and valued. When I moved to England after graduating from Delhi University, I encountered a culture very different from the one that I was used to. It was much more individualistic and initially I found it disorienting and the cultural transition created anxiety. This was painful but it also helped me to recognize my weaknesses which was valuable. I needed to be more assertive and more confident in defending my views. My stay in the United States was an extended one and even as I write this I am in the States. In the United States I encountered a culture which valued self-disclosure, aggressiveness, and spontaneity. Even as I warmed to these traits, I initially struggled to adapt to the cultural dictates. The culture required me to be something other than what I was at that time. I feel more comfortable now because I have been able to merge the best of the Indian and the American traditions. I embrace aspects of American individualism along with aspects of Indian collectivistic tradition which values loyalty and personal relationships. Denmark and Finland are also individualistic societies but I perceive them to represent a softer version of individualism than seen in North America.
What is it that I have learnt from living in these different cultures? In the paragraphs to follow I discuss what I have learnt from my lived experience in different cultures.
- Understanding my weaknesses
When I lived in India I was living in a sort of bubble. I knew what people meant, or what their motivations were, and how to solve a problem in that context. The certainties of living disappeared when I moved to the UK and onwards to the US. I now realized that my strengths were my weaknesses and to become a more holistic individual who could bridge cultures as well as developing a more grounded individual I needed to blend the best that the two cultures offered. I did experience culture shock but fortunately I did not get paralyzed by it. This took years, but the process transformed me and I feel comfortable in interacting with individuals, no matter what their cultural background is.
- Learning to accept ambiguity
Different cultures have different ways of communicating and interactions. In the Indian culture for example, people are reluctant to say no and they are also less time sensitive. In the more goal driven cultures of Europe and North, all meetings must begin on the stated time and there is also a greater directness in how individuals communicate. As I moved from India to the UK and onwards to the US, I struggled initially with being more direct and aggressive as the cultures demanded. Ambiguity occurs when the same situation can be interpreted in more than one way. As I was initially unfamiliar with the culture I was moving into I did not have a complete or an appropriate understanding of what is going on? Initially ambiguity did provoke stress and anxiety but as I became more familiar with the terrain, I became less anxious. When I moved into Finland, Denmark, or Netherlands I had become much more accepting of ambiguity.
- Becoming emotionally tranquil
Cultural values/beliefs have a set of expectations associated with them. We are not conscious of these expectations but they very much implicitly or explicitly shape our behavior. Cultural clashes are in essence clashes of expectations. Incongruency in expectations can provoke anxiety, frustration, and/or anger. I have realized the importance of becoming emotionally tranquil i.e., a state where we are completely at peace with what is going on. Put differently, we control emotions, and not the other way around. Emotional outbursts can violate cultural norms, lead to a loss of face, and /or a decline in trust levels. I am not prone to emotional outbursts but even in situations where I felt angry, I sought to restrain myself.
- Focus on similarities rather than differences
The human mind is more sensitive to differences than similarities. Differences can potentially be a source of threat and from a purely functional perspective it is important to be sensitive to them. However, if we focus solely on differences because they are more salient, we miss the underlying similarity that also unites us. I believe that this is important because the sharedness of human experience can help to bridge the differences that we see. As I have lived in many different cultures I have come to recognize the underlying similarity rather than the surface level differences. In summary, experiencing different cultures can be very transformative if people go in with a mindset that is open to differences rather than being closed to them.