Your beliefs and values profoundly affect how you react to different cultures

In this series of posts, I am introducing how culture relates to the neurological levels that make each and every one of us.

We have seen about your environment and your and others behaviours. These two levels are the external manifestations of culture. The next level we investigated, your capabilities, demonstrates how well or not you understand, adapt and deal with various cultures.

As we go higher up on the pyramid, we begin to touch deeper, hence less obvious, aspects of culture. It is often assumed that those are individual characteristics. Here, I will argue these aspects are also driven by your culture.

The next level I will introduce in this post is about your values and beliefs. Values are what you have come to consider right or wrong. Beliefs are what we hold as true or false, whether it is or not. There is nothing objective in beliefs and values. They are arbitrarily decided. They are, once again, what we have learned and picked up from other people when growing up. We have also come up with some of our own from our experience.

Your beliefs and values will have huge effects on your success in a different culture. Imagine for a moment that one of your values is that your own culture is superior or inferior to others. How do you think it will impact you when you get to a different culture? If you believe you cannot learn a foreign language, how do you think your interactions will fare in a different country?

The good thing about beliefs and values being arbitrary is that we can decide to change them if they are unhelpful, if they impair us. If you treat cultures as different and not superior or inferior, you will develop a more curious and open mind towards the new culture you live in now. If you believe you can learn a foreign language, you very probably will!

And the ability to understand and adapt your beliefs and values will be crucial to navigate cultural diversity. Beliefs and values are the filters through which we interpret the lower levels of behaviours, environment and capabilities. It is these filters that then create the feelings we have when confronted with a new environment.

Imagine you come from a culture that values seniority and experience; you have been promoted, as everyone else, based on your seniority. Suddenly you are in a culture valuing recent achievements more than seniority. You will probably feel you may not get the respect you deserve according to your own values. This will leave you irritated, annoyed and will not be conducive to successful interactions with your colleagues, bosses and subordinates.

In contrast, reviewing, understanding and adapting your values and beliefs when necessary will allow changing in turn your capabilities, behaviours and environment.

Your capability to interact will determine the success of your stay in a different culture.

The main problem is that we are usually not conscious of how we interact with the world around us.

In my last post you have learned how differences in behaviours, the gap between your and others’ behaviours will create a culture shock with all the negative feelings this shock might bring. Your capabilities are how well or not you understand why you behave the way you do and why others behave also the way they do.

You have learned to behave a certain way from your most tender age. You did it completely unconsciously, just by watching people around you and without awareness of it, by copying. With time all these behaviours you acquired became the norm, what is appropriate or right. You do most of these things without thinking. It is so engrained that it becomes a part of yourself. And it is a good thing: you don’t want to have to think every time what the appropriate behaviour, answer is.

However, when you change cultural environment, move to a different country, all the scripts you have learned and know by heart are suddenly useless. You do not understand people’s behaviours and they can’t make sense of yours.

How able you are to understand what drives your behaviours, others’ and how you take this into account to adapt to the new cultural environment you are in will determine the success or not of your experience in this environment.

You probably have been sent for an assignment in a different place because you are successful, a high-flyer. It is normal to think that you can use in this new environment what has made you successful until now. Unfortunately, it probably will not work. To be successful in this new environment, you need to know what are your own cultural rules, how they may actually be unhelpful now. You also need to understand what the expected rules are in your new cultural environment.

The next step then will be the crucial one. Understanding is not enough on its own. To be successful you need to be able to change, to challenge your own current rules. This is the difficult part. It is where a coach specialising in cultural diversity will be able to help. A coach will help you to understand your cultural preferences, the preferences in your new environment and find strategies and solutions to adapt your preferences to interact successfully.

Once you are able to achieve this, you will have increased your capabilities. This increased knowledge will trickle down the neurological levels pyramid and you will exhibit behaviours more in tune with your environment, behaviours which bring the results you are looking for.

Expanding your cultural skills, capabilities is a big improvement. However, to make it more powerful, it is necessary to link these capabilities to the next level in the pyramid and understand how your values and beliefs are helping you or hindering you. This is what we will cover in the next post.

How your cultural environment relates to what you do and who you are.

We define ourselves at several levels. This is a result of needing to interact in a complex environment. Information is coming to us continuously and we need to be able to sieve through it and more importantly react to it appropriately. Our reactions, both internal and external, will impact what we do and how we think.

The layers defining us have been articulated by Robert Dills based on previous work by others as described in the reference (1). They are called Neurological Levels (see figure).

The Environment is what surrounds you, people and physical environment. This is where the culture you live in is. Behaviours are what you and others do and how we act in that environment, in that culture. Capabilities are your abilities to understand and function in that environment, that culture. Your Beliefs and Values are what your culture takes as true or not, as right or wrong and that you have incorporated as your own (for sure you can have others). Your Identify is who you are. We will see that although we like to think we build it ourselves, it is also forged by the culture you are in. Finally, your Purpose is what you think your role is in the bigger schema of life.

How we define ourselves at one level will impact most levels below. It is usually thought that changes at a level will have minimal or short term effects on the levels above. However, I will argue in this series of posts that it is not as straightforward when it comes to culture.

This model has mostly been used in conjunction with the learning processes or how they are impaired in mental illnesses. It is also a model used in coaching to assess the source or level of a problem or inadequacy.

In this series of posts, I will explain how culture affects each and every of these levels. You will understand why you experience confusion, frustration and even worse feelings sometimes when you have to perform in a new cultural environment.

I will explain at what levels change should occur for performing as well in a new cultural environment as in the ones you are familiar with.