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First understand your own culture

Ranjini Manian

Understanding your own culture is an important part of cross-cultural understanding


Going places: As the India theme travels far and wide, we need to get in touch with our culture and traditions.

I am writing this week's article from the sunny region of San Francisco. As I flew in here on the eve of Baisakhi and the Tamil New Year in mid-April, India was on my mind and also in the imagination of Americans.

Union Square, in the heart of San Francisco, has a lovely multi-storied shoppers' paradise called Macy's. Looming large on the facade of Macy's was a 20-foot statue of Ganesha and a large attractive poster in fuchsia and orange shouting out `Imagine India'.

The thousands of tourists taking streetcar rides, the passers by listening to live music on Union Square, the shoppers, the businessmen — all catch a glimpse of Ganesha . Excitedly, I took out my camera to document, yet again, India's far and wide reach in today's world.

A businessman in a suit hurriedly walked past me and then suddenly retraced his steps. "I have wanted to ask why is there a rat at the bottom with a piece of cheese?" he asked me. Caught off guard only momentarily, I engaged my captive victim with age-old Indian wisdom! "The cheese is poetic license by the Western artist who built this statue, but the rat stands for desire. The idea is that it is perfectly okay to have legitimate desires, so long as we are the master. That is why it is depicted as a small, lively creature going about its business at the feet of Ganesha."

He seemed to love that, thanked me and walked on to, no doubt, the next appointment on his schedule.

This incident made me think of how important it is for us to be able to understand and explain our own culture. The truth is, most of what we experience — traditions and rituals, values and beliefs — we have just imbibed and taken for granted. It is not easy for us to put things succinctly into words so that other people can understand, unless we consciously learn to do so.

Self-confidence comes from knowledge: When we know the whys and wherefores behind things, we develop a sense of pride and confidence in ourselves and our culture. We understand the rationale behind rituals and can explain them. It makes our cultural foundation strong.

Knowledge aids communication: Once this knowledge is thorough and clear, we can logically present it to the outside world so any layperson can understand us. We know what we know and we also know how to say this. The two steps of knowledge and communication are equally important.

Communication builds relationships: Once we communicate logically and with clarity, it makes for a sense of renewed respect in the eyes of the listener and we are taken seriously.

The relationship is strong when based on sound knowledge and clear communication.

The three steps above are important in all relationships — business or social. In inter-culture relations, it is extremely important to know your own culture, for this acts as a bridge towards understanding others. This forms the basis of effective teams and multicultural success as we interact in a flattened world.

Back in the US, I faced the next question of the week: "So tell us about castes in India. Do people of all castes frequent the same bars? How should I, as a, foreigner be treating differences?" I stifled a laugh at the image this picture evoked and explained it all in one breath:

We don't frequent bars in India that often.

Sure, if we did "hang out" in bars, we wouldn't be checking castes at all.

As an expatriate, you just need to treat us all with the same respect and not take any notice of differences.

We, as global Indians, need to know our own culture (even the difficult to explain parts), understand others and be able to communicate effectively. To quote the Bhagwad Gita, "What the outstanding person does, others will try to do. The standards such people create will be followed by the whole world."

(The writer is Founder and CEO of Global Adjustments, the Chennai-headquartered relocation and cross-cultural training company.)

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