Recently I came across a situation that “woke” me up from my cultural assumptions as an American. I was purchasing an item at a convenience store where the person behind the counter was of South Asian descent. It was just the two of us, a slow pace in the store. As I was putting my change away, he sneezed. Without pause, I said “God bless you”. And without pause, he continued attending to his business of counter clean up without acknowledgement of what I had just said. My immediate response (to myself) was, “Well, that was rude. I just said ‘God bless you’. Couldn’t he have at least looked my way in some form of acknowledgement?” I walked away aghast, righteously standing on my side of right about my view about this situation. He was simply impolite.
Then I had my “no I didn’t just do that” moment. Here I am, the one who tries to help others from different cultures understand each other through new eyes and I just had stumbled badly. Some may say, that was such a small thing, Judy. Why make such a big deal? Because I had just made that small moment a big deal.
Had he been interviewing with me for a job…had he been a networking counterpart…had he been a new colleague, this “small” interaction may have yielded a negative outcome, had I not realized that I was limited in my cultural awareness.
You see, when I was young and new to America, I never understood why people said “God bless you” when I sneezed. I wasn’t Christian (which as a youngster, I had associated with the notion of “God”) so why would I need to be blessed when I sneezed? Why do I have to say “thank you”? For the longest time, I didn’t know, but I just went along, because it was just what you did. But in the beginning, I remember feeling odd and insincere when I said “God bless you” to others after they sneezed. I kept on asking myself “why is God blessing someone when s(he) sneezes?” Someone later on explained that negative things can occur when you sneeze so you want God’s blessing (Wikipedia seems to agree). “Oh ok I thought. I don’t get it but ok.” Through the years, it became habit and unexplored until this moment.
So what happens to a non-American or a recent immigrant who encounters this “God bless you” situation? What do we, as Americans, respond when there is, none?
In this moment, each of us has the choice to observe, understand and if warranted, talk about it. This is how we connect with each other, rather than push each other away. This is how we can respect each other and make conscious responses. A small thing like this is the essence of cross-cultural competency. A small thing like this is peace-making. If you are unfamiliar with this practice, or practices in another culture, could you simply observe? Understand when, how and why something that feels so unfamiliar happens in a way that is so familiar to others? Can you ask someone you trust, to further your understanding? From there, you can decide how you would behave in a similar situation, in the future. This is stepping into the middle of acceptance of another. Conversely, if you are familiar with a cultural practice and someone “violates” this, can you observe and seek to understand, even after you have judged him or her? Can you seek to understand why s(he) would act in such a way, that seems so impolite, from a culturally-objective perspective? This is stepping into the middle of acceptance of the other. When both parties are willing to do that, we have the opportunity for dialogue, understanding, insight and creative options.
When we are of the “resident” culture and encounter such a “violation” during an interview, a conversation or a business meeting, can we hold judgement on the other person’s competency, credibility or worthiness? Or at least, recognize we had made a judgement that may be unfounded? Can we talk about this awkwardness? If we can, we hold the opportunity to be true global managers and leaders, building teams or partnerships that encompass the best in us.
Humans love rituals. The “God bless you” after a sneeze is an American ritual. If we can see this and other behaviors as rituals, we then open the possibility for dialogue and collaboration with others who are simply different, and hence, create opportunities otherwise lost.