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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Zap the Cultural Gaps with EI

By Maria Elena Duron

Multicultural Networking Editor

Managing emotions is a crucial competence for effectiveness in a world of differences. Different cultures respond differently to emotional displays, the ability to respond in an emotionally appropriate manner becomes an even more valuable asset for the global executive. Given the complex multicultural world in which we live and work, using emotional intelligence to understand cultural differences is a required competence. Emotional intelligence is great for building both productive relationships and interpersonal effectiveness. It is based on the premise that understanding other cultures is a pragmatic strategy, as well as a rich, rewarding approach to life.

I would like to share to you four practical tips to help you zap the cultural gaps through emotional intelligence. These four tips aim to guide and help you develop the critical skills that make up this competence.

Understanding Cultural Whys Behind a Behavior

Let me give you an example to explain this. During my last visit to the Philippines, I noticed that whenever I go to any establishment, whether high- or low-end, people would always call me “Ma’am” and my husband, “Sir.” It’s somehow annoying when I hear them say, “Let me repeat your order, Ma’am.” or “Is there anything else, Ma’am?” all the time! In the US, we usually hear “Ma’am” and “Sir” from those in the military. Although it was a bit irritating to hear (since I never attended a military school), I couldn’t just express my annoyance. I researched on it, and I found that “Filipinos are careful to show respect to those of superior status (due to age, education, organizational rank, perceived wealth, etc.). For instance, when speaking (in Tagalog-Pilipino) to an elder, a social superior, or a stranger, a person inserts the particle po or ho ("Sir" or "Ma'am") into almost every sentence.” ( I then understood that the waitress wasn’t really trying to annoy me; instead, she’s just showing respect.

This is a very simple example. However, it is very common to be misunderstood or to misunderstand people because of our cultural differences. They key is to hold on to your emotions first and try to get to the bottom of the behavior. Asking why wouldn’t hurt. Instead, it will help you understand why people do the things they do. It also helps you avoid any unnecessary conflicts.

Seeing the Benefits and Limitations of Cultural Norms

Remember the word “norms”? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a principle of right action binding upon the members of a group and serving to guide, control, or regulate proper and acceptable behavior.” When we understand the reason behind a person’s actions, it opens our eyes to the benefits and limitations of what’s normal for other people. At this point, we’d be able to see what good these norms can do to us and to what extent they are beneficial or harmful. Given the example above, if we try to see the benefits of using “Sir” and “Ma’am” in a business, we can then understand that it may boost sales, because guests may feel respected and valued. However, the limit is overdoing it. It would have been better if they introduced themselves and asked for the guests’ names or how they want to be called. That way, no one gets annoyed, and customers will still feel respected.

Transcending My Own Perspective

In this world, it is not enough that we understand our own feelings. We also need to understand other people’s feelings. That is when empathy comes into play. Aside from understanding the reason, benefits, and limits behind various cultural norms, it is also good if we are able to empathize and walk in other people’s shoes. This includes controlling our urge to judge other cultures as inferior by acknowledging the pros and cons of all cultural norms, yours included. This deeper level of understanding helps you to see through others and get a handle on your own feelings about their behavior.

Creating an Environment That Values Diversity

The first three tips mentioned earlier will not work as effectively if you are the only one doing it. Spread the word, and help your friends and colleagues understand about how EI can help us build stronger working relationships with our peers, bosses, and even clients. An organization comprised of emotionally intelligent people is more likely to succeed than those who do not have the same competencies. Don’t keep the knowledge to yourself - be an advocate of emotional intelligence to help zap the cultural gaps!

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