Words Matter or How to Become More Open-Minded

The First Step: Be Aware of Your “Labeling” Words

A very common tendency is to label things that are Not familiar to us as “weird” or “wrong”. But What’s the effect of doing this? Let’s see how this plays out in an intercultural context:

Imagine that I belong to a culture with a very structured greeting process.  (I am completely making this up.) When we meet each other, I stand on my right foot, with my left leg bent up at the knee. I hop on my right foot three times, point at you with my little finger, and say, “Whoop! Whoop!”

Yes, it’s certainly not the way you have learned to greet other people for sure.  And because it’s so different, you might judge it and tell me, “That’s weird”, And as you say those words, your face and body will communicate distaste.

What’s the result?

Let’s look at it from my point of view.  I have honored you by giving you my tradition cultural greeting.  But your “That’s weird” comment has just insulted my heritage and my culture and my traditional greeting process.  And when you insult me, if I’m like most people. I want nothing more to do with you. I may be polite about it, but now I’m very closed off and reserved with you.

And that’s the end of our opportunity to have a friendship and learn from each other.

But what if you had heard that “weird” judgment word in your head before you opened your mouth? And knew that was a negative judgement word, and corrected yourself internally before you opened your mouth? Much Better!

The Second Step: Re-label with a “Neutral” term.

This is where you do your internal work. You’ve heard your judgment label of “weird” and you know that is Not going to lead to a good outcome.

So what can you call that greeting?  It’s “different”.  And as you say that, notice how your nonverbal communication changes.  It’s easier to say with a smile, because you are labeling it as “different from the way I learned to greet others”, which allows for there to be Many Ways we could greet other people.

The Third Step: Engage with Positivity

Now you are engaging in the situation in a more open-minded way. You are learning about a new way. And as your relationship builds, you might learn more about the origin of that greeting, which might turn out to be fascinating. Working to learn more about another culture in a friendly, open way builds wonderful bridges between people. Also, learning new things makes your own brain even sharper and better. That’s a definite win-win.

And if you are really agile, you might even choose to use the same greeting when you encounter this new friend again.

The Fourth Step:  Look for More Opportunities to Learn and Grow

Have you ever had the experience of talking to someone who is Really listening to you? That you can tell they truly want to know what’s going on with you? And that they hear every word you say?  How do you feel about that person?

Of course. If they ever need anything, we’d be right there for them! Why? Because by their listening behavior, they told us we are important, and we have value. Wow! Who wouldn’t like someone who helped us feel that way?!

And we can do that interculturally. Let’s say first that you know someone who is bilingual. Rather than be negative and judgmental, saying “Speak English!”, what would happen if you said instead, “Would you please teach me how to say Hello and Have a Good Day?” Or if you see a word you don’t know in another language, you ask politely, “Could you tell me what that word means, please?”

Here’s another real world example:  Let’s imagine you are traveling to Saudi Arabia. You learn that you should never show the soles of the shoes or feet, since this is insulting to the host. (It’s like saying “You are less than the dirt beneath my feet.”) So you are told to keep both feet on the floor, or cross your legs very carefully so that the sole of your shoe always points to the floor.

Yes! It’s “different from the way you were raised.” It’s so interesting. And so as you visit, you are very careful and conscious of the direction of the soles of your shoes. Way to Go! 

And now you are being that person who truly cares about the other person and shows them they are important and have value. And what great relationships you are now helping build. You are making connections, and being a gifted intercultural Communicator. You are a welcomed guest.

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