On the way to work this morning I tested something out. I have to admit I was a bit scared. I took my life in my hands and my heart was beating rapidly. I saw, coming towards me, a group of people. Freshly off the train, they hit the pavement and were stomping with determination to their places of work. As they approached me, I decided to test cultural expectations and see what would happen.
I shifted position and walked on the left side of the pavement.
In Sweden, cars drive on the right side of the road. On escalators, people stand on the right side and let people climbing the escalator pass on the left. It’s an unwritten cultural rule that this also translates to the pavement. When masses of people move along the street, they automatically migrate to right-side walking.
But not me. Not this morning anyway. I wanted to test this cultural assumption.
As the masses approached me, and I walked on the left, I paid attention to the expression on people’s faces. Many ignored me. Others saw me and looked surprised. But the majority, gave me the evil eye. This came in a variety of forms, from staring at me and grimacing, to rolling the eyes upwards to audibly tutting as they walked past or were forced to navigate around me. Nobody reproached me or scolded me. Nobody told me I was doing it wrong. But many of them looked annoyed at my existence and the fact that I was inconveniencing them.
This little experiment highlighted a classic concept in intercultural competence. We are so preoccupied with our own view of the world that we fail to see other people’s perspectives. There are often situations where others don’t know the ‘rules’, but we judge them as though they do know the rules – but are just idiotic or rude. Consequently, we become angry or frustrated and this affects our interaction and our communication.
The solution? Instead of thinking ‘that person’s an idiot’, we can think ‘that’s interesting, why might they be doing that differently?’
Think about that next time you get irritated because somebody isn’t following the norms that you believe in.