In part 2 of this series, we determined that our culture is invisible, like the roots of a tree. We rarely see or think about the roots when we look at a tree, even though we are conscious that the roots determine the aspect, the health, and the life of that tree. Similarly, the roots of our culture are hidden in our values, traditions and belief systems, and what people see – and judge us by – is merely the exterior representation of who we are.
As you face new cultures, it is critical to develop an open mind that accepts differences. Develop patience and understanding of cultural roots, yours and others’. Just because the roots of your culture are different from the ones of others does not mean that theirs are wrong.
The next strategy that helps develop a multicultural mind is to reduce your stress level to accept that not every behavior that goes against your expectation or your culture is intentionally designed to hurt you. Unintentional cultural blunders are more frequent that you can imagine. Not all unwelcome actions and words from a person of a different race should be considered racist.
Avoid developing hyper-sensitive responses to cultural mistakes. In my recent book, Shocking Cultures, I relate the many difficulties I had in adapting to the U.S. cultures. One particular incident cost me my job: at her birthday party, I offered a colleague a book that I thought would be the most loved present, considering her physique. She did not need to open the book to get out of every one of her nerves; its title alone was sufficient, Thirty Easy Ways to Lose Thirty Pounds in Thirty Days. I was then a baby in my host culture.
Language plays an important role in building intercultural relationships. Just by trying to say a few words in a person’s language may take you a long way in building relationships with that person and their culture.
On an individual level, language learning can help you live longer. Results of an intensive study were recently released at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University of Toronto, studied 450 Alzheimer’s patients, all of whom showed the same degree of impairment at the time of diagnosis. Half was bilingual; half monolingual. The bilingual patients had Alzheimer’s symptoms that were diagnosed between four and five years later than the monolingual patients. The research concluded that bilingual patients are able to cope with the disease better than the control group.
The great protective advantage of language learning against Alzheimer’s is the constant mental juggling that the bilingual brains often conducts by comparing the new language structures with the language the subject is already speaking. The constant attempts to putting words in the correct order and in the right syntax in a way that makes sense to the listener is a robust, executive exercise that requires the memory to always challenge itself and provide the meaningful output. Starting to learn the language at any age will certainly keep your brain active; but the sooner you start, the better.
Bridging cultures in our increasingly multicultural world is not only good for business as large and small corporations increasingly claim, it is good for building harmonious relationships in small communities like ours. Most importantly, it is good for your health. So, “just do it”; learn another language, learn other cultures.
Emmanuel Ngomsi, Ph.D.is President of All World Languages and Cultures, Inc. He educates and coaches on issues of cultures and diversity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org