Several years ago, in a workshop I was delivering in Bangalore, a participant who had recently returned to India after living in the U.S. for more than a decade, remarked that Americans are so goal-driven that even when they are on a beach vacation, they have a list of books they intend to read. Her comment struck me that indeed U.S. culture is very focused on setting short-term goals to ensure future success.
This has been particularly true in my life. At the start of every new year I sit down and write out my personal and professional intentions for the year. Like many of us, the list is usually quite long and when I do my year-end review, I usually measure my success if I’ve been able to get through a third of my desired intentions.
This year, however, I’m approaching it from a slightly different angle. My main intentions this year are to learn how to surrender and to cultivate patience. From an American perspective, surrender may seem like the antithesis of success. The dictionary describes surrender as “yielding our power and control to another.” In our highly-controlled, individualistic society where we are taught to take charge of our destinies, surrender is equated with weakness and failure. And with the high demands on us in our fast-paced society, patience is a skill many of us have long lost.
Yet, improving our ability to surrender and be patient are critical to succeed in a cross-cultural environment. Having recently temporarily relocated to Cuenca, Ecuador with my family, I’m given the occasion to test out my new year’s intentions daily. For example, from waiting interminably at the Ministry of Education to navigate a bureaucratic process I don’t understand to establish my daughter in her new school, to figuring out new recipes using some of the unknown ingredients I’m buying in the local market, I’ve had to let go of my need to command an outcome. I’m discovering that letting go of my preconceived notions of efficiency and being willing to step to the precipice of my comfort level is not only easing some of the anxieties of being in a new culture but also providing me a wonderful ability to connect more deeply with the Ecuadorians I meet as they go out of their way to help me.
When we hold on too tightly to our tried and tested way of doing things, we lose the rich opportunity of exploring how things are done in another culture. We also risk alienating locals who perceive our take charge approach as insensitive and abrasive. I observed this the other day when a fellow American was impatiently demanding customer service in a local tienda (store). To thrive when we live and/or work across cultures, we therefore need to sometimes walk the fine line between being our authentic selves and leaving our comfort zones to dive into the unknown.
As you begin 2019, what goals or intentions have you set for yourself to ease your cross-cultural interactions with your global colleagues, partners and clients? In what ways can you cultivate the art of surrender and patience? Developing cross-cultural skills takes time and concerted effort.