Posted by: Geoff Wing | September 14, 2009

Unlearning a foreign culture

This is a story about one of my more humiliating career experiences. I was living in Tokyo and had just joined a new foreign company expanding around the globe, and was conversing with one of its executives. He asked me what I thought its main sales challenge would be in the USA. I said that the location of their head office – in a former Soviet “eastern bloc” country, was going to be a problem for Americans who remembered the1960’s Cold War. He agreed, saying that perception is everything in business. Little did I know that my perceptions about that country and the Soviet Union would impair my own ability to work with that company.

My childhood taught me everything I knew something about the country. When I was young, it was called “Czechoslovakia” and they were fierce international hockey opponents. I knew they came from an evil Communist place owned and operated by the Soviet Union. I knew they were sad losers during World War II, and remembered reading Franz Kafka’s depressing and bizarre novels about stifling bureaucracy (The Trial) and human cockroaches (The Metamorphosis) while in high school.

With this information, I set to work. In my first week, I already faced several setbacks, so I knew I was dealing with rulebound bureaucrats working according to communist ideas that were going to be completely impossible. I regretted that I had joined the firm.

Fortunately, company executives sent me to their headquarters for several weeks of training and familiarization. Reading, talking to people, and making friends made my head spin – I had been unaware of even the most basic facts about the country: it had returned to being a liberal democracy in 1989 after liberating itself from the Soviets, and became the “Czech Republic” in 1993. I learned that my assumptions about the place were ridiculous. Because it was Catholic country, I expected the influence of the church to be strong, but was completely wrong. I expected to see Soviet-style crumbling infrastructure, and strong Soviet-style social conservatism, but was mistaken. I realized I was in serious culture shock, that my assumptions and misunderstandings were warping my perceptions so badly that everything I experienced became a validation of my negative ideas about the country and its social system. I needed to be completely reprogrammed – to forget what my childhood years had taught me.

I was humbled by this experience because as a Canadian-born person who had moved to Japan 11 years earlier, and with my decade of international business experience, I was proud of my multi-national experience and my ability to  work across cultures and countries. I had happily adapted to Japan. But I completely failed to see within myself  the deep distrust and negative beliefs about Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that I had accumulated since childhood. It took several weeks on Czech soil with Czech friends, plus my determined efforts to identify and purge my inaccurate beliefs and assessments, for me to understand that my anti-communist upbringing had completely blocked me in evaluating a country, a society, and my daily experiences for what they really were.

All of this taught me the importance of unlearning everything I think I know when faced with new and unusual situations. It taught me to distrust many of the beliefs and perceptions that I carry inside me. It taught the importance of asking questions and cultivating a curious mind – one that starts empty so it can be filled with the knowledge that one learns from experience.


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