If you’ve ever wished you could talk to someone in Spanish or interact more confidently with people from different cultures- you’re not alone. We hear this often at Language Matters, and our team as a whole can relate. Understanding unfamiliar traditions, values, and languages is challenging! Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to navigating a culture effectively. Luckily though, this is NOT a privilege exclusive to those born in a different country or into a diverse family! But you have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone and allow yourself to be impacted by the new people and ideas you’ll encounter- you have to be willing to become part of that culture.
First, let’s talk about the difference between “learning” and “becoming”. Learning about a culture is the process of acquiring technical knowledge about the way things work in a different environment. But this technical information isn’t enough to make someone “culturally-adept,” or equipped to excel in the environment. On the other hand, becoming part of a culture is a more involved, internal process that takes a greater deal of effort and commitment.
Think about this: how many times have you learned something in theory and later realized how much harder it is in practice? If you have any experience learning a language, consider how different it is to speak to your instructor in a class setting than to a native speaker in a more unpredictable environment. In order to effectively navigate a new culture,
you need to combine academic-learning with relevant practice. You need to be “street smart!” Some elements of culture are imperceptible from an academic standpoint; until you experience them personally, they will continue to be a barrier in your mission to relate better to individuals within that culture.
An excellent start to a journey of “becoming” could be to learn the language spoken in that cultural setting. Language is the heart of culture; by learning the language of the culture you are acquiring, you are forging a strong relational connection to its speakers. Do you want to be culturally enriched? Speak to others in their native languages. Communicating with people in their own language builds a bridge to their identities and culture. Learning how to communicate in another language shows that you care enough about someone else's background to make their native tongue your own way of communicating. It sends the powerful message, “I value you enough to make your culture a part of me”.
An American whose goal is to relate better to Hispanic culture demonstrates the concept of “becoming” well. His perspectives on the right or best ways to do things could change through relevant experience with Hispanic culture, such as learning the language, traveling to Hispanic countries, investing in meaningful conversation, and sharing authentic experiences with Hispanics in his community. In learning to interact in the ways Hispanics interact, celebrate how they celebrate, and even acquiring values particular to their culture, he is integrating and investing himself. He might grow to see the culture through a clearer lense that will allow him to relate to it and create deeper relationships as a result. And while he is still bound to experience culture shock at times, as well as feelings of doubt that he truly belongs in the culture, these concerns will fade as he recognizes the little pieces of this new culture that are now part of him.
This is what it takes to effectively navigate a new culture; the willingness to both learn about and adapt to new ways of being in order to BECOME.