How to get out of your own culture bubble.

The other night I took my kids to a large destination park and I was struck by how many different cultures there were in that one place.

I hadn’t been there for a couple of years and that night I was truly amazed at what an amazing cultural mosaic Canada has become. As I stood there looking at all the different faces around me, it made me realize I don’t know as much about the world (and its people) as I probably should.  

I’ve always had a strong interest in the different cultures that inhabit our world (especially their music) but sometimes I have trouble keeping all the details straight.

For example, I sometimes forget what religion is dominant in a certain area of the world, or I can’t recall what might have happened historically in a particular region or what the native language might be.  (I knew I shouldn’t have blown off history class in high school). 

Why does that matter, you ask?  

Think of how we act when we meet someone new. In a first conversation, it’s all about finding things in common and it’s handy to know a little about the area someone’s from.  If you’re born in Canada and you meet someone from St. John’s Newfoundland, so much pops into your head, right? I think about the colourful houses, going whale watching, Great Big Sea or camping in Gross Morne. When I meet someone from Montenegro, not much comes to mind except a rather odd movie I saw many years ago, and that’s not good.

 

With Canada welcoming between 260,000 and 285,000 new permanent residents each year, it’s safe to say that the world has come to you. You can probably talk to ten or more people from differing cultures just by walking on a downtown street. Think about how many cultures are represented in your office.  Chances are you might not know very much about where a colleague is from or what their cultural traditions might be.  But knowing a little bit about these things will not only help your relationship with this person, it may help you understand their perspective on issues and the way they work. 

I didn’t know it, of course, but I was pretty much raised in a bubble. I was raised in the countryside near a couple of small towns. Everyone around me was the same colour and appeared to live like my family did. If I had actually cared to pay more attention, I would have realized that even though people were the same skin colour, their ethnicities were different. But as a selfish (distracted) kid, I never gave it much thought. 

Thankfully, music was my “in”.

As musical instruments go, there is probably no better instrument than a drum to help you learn about other cultures. Almost every country in the world has some kind of drumming tradition.

 

 In University I was trained to play the standard orchestral percussion instruments used in Beethoven, Mozart, etc. (timpani, snare drum, cymbals, the triangle - yes, playing the triangle in an orchestra requires great skill). I could have focused on those instruments and that music for my whole career, but for some reason, that didn’t fulfill me. 

Then, one evening about 30 years ago, I heard an amazing concert by the Canadian percussion group Nexus (now in their 43 year, yes, 43th year!)

The whole concert was like a cultural smorgasbord. Among their pieces, one caught my attention right away. It was a beautiful piece (based on a piece from Ghana, West Africa) in which they incorporated an Asian flute. (Check out my blog about my first time playing West African music). It also featured a beautiful African Thumb piano called a Mbira Dzavadzimu from Zimbabwe. I was hooked.

This was my first real introduction to music from other cultures. Since then, have spent my time researching and performing music from all over the world and that has helped tremendously when it comes to meeting new people. All drums have a history, a tradition, and a reason for being. This means that when I wanted to learn about a drum, I had to learn about the people and their traditions too!

Now when I meet someone new, one of the first things I tell him or her is that I am a drummer and, if I can, I mention a drum from their country. It’s an instant connection. (A little strange I know, but it works for me).  Can you think of a drum from your cultural background?  See! 

 So what about you?  What can be your “in” to other cultures? 

The best solution is to focus on your similarities, not your differences.  It’s way too easy to focus on the differences between people. You probably see and hear people doing that frequently. Don’t get me wrong; being aware of certain cultural differences is not a bad thing, so you don’t mess up by saying or doing something wrong. But you need to be careful not make generalizations or see people as stereotypes.  

Here are a few things you can look for to build connections with co-workers who might be from a culture you don’t know much about:

1) Work

You could start by talking about what has brought you together.  Obviously you work for the same company. It would be interesting to know (and share) what brought you to this organization, what it is you like about the company, what their path was like. 

2) Food  

This is one that is easy to take for granted because most of us can speed dial dinner from one of many cultures any given night. How crazy is that.  But food is a great one because, hey, doesn’t everyone love food! Learning about food from a certain culture can lead to so much information about cultural traditions, the way people live there and the history and geography of a region.  If you happen to notice what someone is bringing to eat, or what they’re ordering while you’re at a restaurant, starting a conversation about food is a great way to open the door to getting to know them better.

3) Your adventures  

If you’ve been lucky enough to travel the world a bit and you think you’ve been to where your co-worker is from, then that’s a great one. You have already done some research and wonderful conversations can begin. As well, it will bring back some great memories.

4) Music and Dance  

If you’re into music (not necessarily as a player but as an avid listener), this is also a wonderful way to connect. Got a passion for Bollywood, Latin Dancing, Spanish Flamenco? Pay attention to what music someone has on their device, or ask them what they’re listening to these days. 

5) Sports  

Here is another really accessible one. Look for telltale signs, like stickers or a flag, even jewelry representing a sports team. (Sports fans and I admit to being one and can be a bit obsessive – Go Habs) 

6) Clothing  

This one is for you textile aficionados, (and I am a little weak in this area) but I do know many cultures have really amazing textiles or patterns that are important and culturally significant.  See someone wearing something cool? Ask them what it’s about.

7) Film  

 Who doesn’t love a good movie?  I learned this from a hairdresser I used to see. (Yes, my hairdresser. My 90’s mullet was long gone but I still needed more than a barber shop). He was a British fellow relatively new to Canada working at a big salon in downtown Toronto and he would see dozens of people each week.  Every time I saw him he would ask what movies I’d seen and share his reviews or reviews from his other clients. It actually made him a valuable resource for my entertainment time and made him seem like an incredible conversationalist. There was never a quiet moment between the wash and the gel application. Sorry, probably TMI.

8) Books  

This is another easy one if you can find out what someone is reading. I say “if” because it can be hard to tell these days with reader apps that don’t have a book cover to show us.  If you see someone staring at their smart phone or ipad and they’re not touching the screen every 1 or 2 seconds, chances are they’re reading some long form content like a book or magazine. You just need to come out and say “reading something good?” and off you go.

Things you’ll want to stay away from.

…at least until you know someone well enough, and even then, enter at your own risk: Religion and Politics.  I have been at parties with many people who are friends and when the political talk started, it led to severe fireworks. I repeat: only with people you know well and enter at your own risk.  

I have been fortunate because my musical career has allowed me to experience deeper connections with certain cultures. There is nothing I love more than playing music with a group of musicians who all come from differing backgrounds and who are playing instruments from their culture. 

A lifetime of wonderful experiences like those I mentioned above have heavily influenced the work I do with corporations with respect to better collaboration and leveraging diversity.  Through music, my non-musician audiences are able to experience the power of diversity and realize its tremendous potential for creating unique organizations. It's an "in" that I can share and I like that.

 

To build successful partnerships and working relationships, you have to be curious, welcoming, forth coming and understanding. If your workplace isn’t a multi-cultural mosaic yet, I can tell you from my recent park visit that it will be in just a few years, and, like me, you probably need to raise your game. The good news is that it’s easy to do.

Take a good look around, see who’s there, look for things to talk about, ask questions, share information and once in a while, take a step back and revel in just how great it is to have the world right in your workplace.