As I mentioned in an older post it sometimes feels like a burden to be an interculturalist. The main reasons are that we are often perceiving cultural differences in a way that goes far beyond stereotyping. Sometimes our knowledge feels limited even though we know a lot more about cultural differences than the average person. It feels like you are watching the world with a new set of magical contact lenses. These give you a clear sight into how the world works and sometimes you wish you could go back to the time when everything seemed blurry in black and white. When you could easily polarize and put people in drawers pulled according to the half-knowledge you had about them and their cultural background.
With this post, I want to encourage you to have an opinion when it comes to intercultural issues. I want to explain why I stopped being politically correct on all media. I don’t want to cry at breakfast tables when people I hardly know share how they feel about bombing Palestine or about refugees. I don’t want to hide my personal life any longer because I am afraid I might lose a client.
My heart has been with the underdogs ever since I grew up in the children’s home my parents ran. In high school, I was considered “too social” for a lot of people and I always thought of myself as a moral institution. I was going to go into the arts that I was sure of. But life came in between.
In the university as the president of our AIESEC local committee, I was once told I was “too engaged” for our cause of cultural understanding. Like I did not have enough self-interest as a normal business student would have. I did not connect with many students in my class. Most of my friends were from AIESEC.
Working in banking and other companies of capitalist structures I often felt a bit out of place. I tried to find meaning in what we did. When we made staff redundant in Germany, we supported them to find another job at another company. When we outsourced to India, I saw the positive effect on the job market in Bangalore and Mumbai. I tried to tell myself that as long as individual lives get better through my work I cannot be on the wrong path. But more than once my personal values of fairness, equality and honesty were challenged.
One of my best managers told me, that I had high moral values and that this was probably why I sometimes struggled in the corporate world. It sounds strange but my moral attitude and tendency to humanism got in my way in my career (plus other factors such as being female). Also, the conviction learned in school that you have to be truthful and honest. Let’s say in the corporate world you have to be diplomatic and understand political behavior.
I went to my first SIETAR conference in Germany in 2002 and felt at home. I met other “interculturalists” at the Summer Institute of Intercultural Communication in Portland, Oregon. I will never forget the deep connection I felt with everyone I was having lunch with. It was a revelation. After these encounters, I understood that there was nothing wrong with how I saw the world. I understood that there are people thinking and feeling like me out there. I was probably just in an environment, that was not ready yet for a more humanistic way of working with people.
In the meantime, I have my own business grounded on intercultural understanding and I have made a decision to drop political correctness and be the person that I am. My clients appreciate, that I am honest with them. For a career in corporate this might be an issue but I am beyond that. I want to say what I want to say. If clients, companies or Facebook friends decide that they don’t like that I will let them go. I want to work with clients who share my values. In the first years of my business, I was concerned that I could lose clients when I share what I believe in. I have noticed, that this is my fear of rejection rather than reality.
In intercultural training, we often tell people to talk about sports or the arts over dinner in other cultures. While this is a non-threatening approach and works 80% of the time, it can also get dull. As a German I want to dig deeper. I want to understand what drives people and how they really think. I don’t want a glossy, shiny or otherwise manipulated version of the person I am sharing a meal with. I want them to be able to tell me their truth. If a friend feels racist behavior because she has brown skin, I want her to share this with me. I want to speak openly to my clients and friends.
I will continue to fight for the less privileged: Refugees, gays, and women. And you know why? Because this is who I am and this is why I was born into this world.
Who will you support in 2016? Let us know in the comments.
Happy New Year to all of you!