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Intercultural Learning – research and “real” work

Sem categoria / By Elisabeth "Elle" Weingraber-Pircher

Intercultural Learning – research and “real” work

By now, I had started dating an Italian from the South Tyrol, the formerly Austrian-Hungarian, and thus German speaking, part of the Tyrol. He had just graduated and accepted a first job assignment in Dubai. I saw the perfect opportunity to explore the world some more. With some Austrian networking I landed a job as a Junior Quality Consultant in a small firm preparing companies for ISO 9000 certifications, based in Sharjah, one of
the six emirates that, together with Dubai, make up the United Arab Emirates. While I have always been a working student, making money by cleaning offices, working on an assembly line, serving in a bar and selling educational books door to door, this was my first “real” job in the business world. What struck me right away was that the solutions I had in my head as good to solve all of the world problems, in particular related the business, were really rather idealistic and impracticable for the much more complex business reality I encountered in the UAE. A bit of a wake-up call.
I also realized that I was a woman. Well, okay, I knew that before but it had never made any significant difference in my life. And suddenly this biological detail that opened – and closed – doors for me. It gave me access to some local business partners, to start building a business relationship, but at a certain point a male colleague had to take over, to close the deal. There were restaurants next to the office where I had to eat in a different room than my male colleague. So I began to think about what it meant to me to be a woman in the UAE and in the world. My master thesis advisor, Ursula Schneider of the Karl Franzens University of Graz, herself a successful woman, was a fabulous sounding board, patiently reconciling my contradictory statements.
I was writing my thesis about the influences of culture on the implementation of quality systems in the UAE, using Hofstede’s cultural dimension for my research. During the interview process I was appalled to find that his dimensions did not always fit perfectly. Sometimes the person in front of me refused to fit into the category Hofstede had laid out in his research. My neat research was under attack by real people refusing to be squeezed into being either individualistic or collectivistic oriented people. What a mess! How did they dare! Again, my professor stepped in, pointing out that those categories where helpful to understand the thinking and behavior of groups and not of every single individual belonging to that group. There were deviants and there was always a distribution curve, often shaped in curious ways! Now we are talking about a massively liberating idea. Every group had deviants and consequently I could belong to a group without having to follow all the ways of the group. I decided to be a deviant … and to enjoy being deviant.
I also decided that there might be many other deviants out there and hence that while cultural differences certainly existed, we were all just humans, mostly deviant humans like me.
My Italian boyfriend moved on to Hong Kong and I returned to Graz to finish my degree. My motivation to finish my degree course – undergraduate and masters degree studies in Austria are unstructured and thus as fast or as slow as the student’s own pace – was greatly increased by him presenting an unexpected incentive in form of a diamond engagement ring, one Christmas eve. Somehow I typed faster and learned more with a diamond ring on my finger. After a fabulous wedding in Austria, a few months later, we returned to Hong Kong as a couple, where I worked as the Director of Marketing and Communications for an Austrian high-end chandelier manufacturer. With clients ranging from famous and glamorous hotels and casinos to Asian royal families, I was busy working. Everyone was busy working. In fact, Hong Kong was a fabulous place to start working. Unlike in Austria, you could move things based on a good proposal and hard work. Age and experience were not as relevant as in Austria. In addition, Hong Kong was a work hard & play hard place, full of young expatriates. Our timing was also extremely lucky and auspicious, in that we had the opportunity of living and experiencing Hong Kong during the Handover year 1997, when the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to China. Lots of excitement and many parties, so after a year in Hong Kong it was good for my body and my soul to move on to a slightly less crazy place: Bangkok, Thailand.
In Bangkok, I continued as the representative of the Austrian chandelier company, while building my own consulting business for small and medium- sized European companies, trying to bridge cultural and geographic hurdles and endeavoring to set up shop, find a partner, or simply buy from or sell to companies in Thailand or the wider region. Thailand offered very rich culture learning for me. Not just in terms of art, history and social systems completely different to anything I had learned until then, also in terms of implicit communication. Learning to speak some Thai, I realized that Thais don’t really say “no” in a direct way, such as “no” or “heck no” but use many indirect terms and phrases, which may or may not mean “no” depending on the context. Therefore I had to learn to read between the lines and understand the context. Who is this person, which family does he or she belong to, what job does he or she have, what age and which position in the company and how do they relate to me, etc. Quite exhausting work especially if you are confronted with direct communication when you least expect it, such as this exchange in a shop. I wanted to buy a gorgeous red dress, “Sawadhi kha (Hello), would you have this dress in my size?” The response of the sales clerk, delivered with a beaming Thai smile, was “No,
lady, you are too fat”! I am still convinced it was a case of incorrect language use and she meant to say “tall”…
What made my cultural learning even richer in Thailand was the fact that I had some fabulous cultural informants, almost like the cultural version of the KGB or FBI. Sabine was Austrian but born and raised in Thailand, fluent in the language and very knowledgeable about Thai culture and customs. Norbert, also Austrian, had quite a few years of work experience dealing with large public sector projects in Thailand. Together we would spend hours discussing daily occurrences, trying to make sense of what we experienced, understanding what was important to us and why, and doing so by applying abstract philosophical concepts and theories to it. And lots of irony and laughter! Maybe it was because I was so used to a more abstract learning style that these discussion were very useful.
One thing that became clear was that the more I moved around and interacted with people from different cultures, the stronger my stereotypes became. Given that I was now in daily contact with many different people from all over the world, I needed to have some quick guidelines about what to say and how to say it, what to focus on, what small talk topics were acceptable and which would result in icy silence, what values to push when negotiating successfully, etc. Basically “stereotypes” became an important tool for success, so what happened to the “we are all deviants” idea? How could those two concepts be consolidated? Well, my standard phrase at that time was, “My stereotypes have become stronger and richer but I am also quicker to drop them when faced with an individual who is a deviant and does not fit my stereotype”. Today I would say that I had more sophisticated “cultural general categories” (instead of “stereotypes”) that I used to prepare for interactions with people. I would use them as a hypothesis to be validated or not, when dealing with a specific individual. My understanding of “stereotype” now is the rigid application of an assumption that will not change when faced with different facts, rather trying to make the person fit the category. I have to say it was quite liberating to be able to use “cultural general categories” without feeling I was stereotyping. Again curiosity helped greatly to fine-tune those categories and observations.