Here is the full transcript of Mondå founder Julien S. Bourrelle’s TEDx Talk: How Culture Drives Behaviours at TEDxTrondheim conference. This event occurred on May 31, 2015. Julien Bourrelle is the author of the best seller series “The Social Guidebook to Norway.”
Julien S. Bourrelle – Founder, Mondå
I was in Brussels. I was sitting on La Grand-Place, which is a beautiful square in the center of the town. Suddenly, a man came and sat next to me, and started talking to me, so I turned to him and I answered. Then I turned back and I asked myself, “Why is he talking to me?” Suddenly, I realized, “Julien, you’re becoming Norwegian.”
So I turned to the man and I said, “Sorry, I live in a country where people don’t speak to each other.” The thing is, in Norway, it is not that people don’t speak to each other; it’s that socialization takes part in a much more framed and organized manner. I was not expecting this man as a stranger to come and talk to me.
However, this is surprising, because I come from the French-speaking part of Canada where that type of behavior is totally normal. However, my mental programming has changed. My brain has been rewired, because during the last five years I’ve lived in a tiny little country in the north of Europe which is called Norway. When you move to a different country, there are three ways that you can relate to the culture: you can confront, complain, or conform. When you confront, you believe that your behaviors are the right behaviors.
When you complain, what happens is that you will isolate yourself into social bubbles of foreigners living in segregation with the society. When you adapt your way to behave, when you conform to the whole society, then you can truly benefit from diversity. But that implies that you are observing, learning, understanding the behaviors of others, and adapting your own, so that it fits with the behaviors of the society you’re in.
I was in the north-east of Spain, in a beautiful region of Catalonia, and I was there with a very good friend of mine. He is two-meters tall, blond hair, and blue eyes. We were visiting the beautiful region where they’re making the cava, the Spanish sparkling wine. After the guided tour, we asked some more questions to the very charming guide that was there, and she was explaining us with passion about what she was doing, and then suddenly she stopped.
She took a step aside, she took my friend, and she shook him. And then she looked at me and said, “Why is he not interested in what I’m saying?” Because she was not getting the emotional feedback she was used to. She was seeing his emotional feedback through her own cultural glasses, meaning that she was interpreting the fact that he had a neutral face on what it would mean if someone from her culture would have that face, and that would mean that the person was not interested or didn’t want to be there.
And we all see the world through cultural glasses. The lens through which your brain sees the world shapes your reality. If you can change the lens, not only can you change the way your brain perceives behaviors, but you can change the way people relate to cultural differences. Embedded within that statement is the key to benefiting from diversity.
Three years ago, I was sitting on the board of directors of one major university in Northern Europe and I was representing 2,000 academic staff, and I wanted to become a better leader. So I’ve looked around the whole university for a leadership class that would be suited to my position, and I found one, and I was thrilled, because not only would I learn about leadership, but because I would also learn about how women lead, because the class was called “Leadership for women.”
And so, as naive as I was, I’ve registered for the class. The next morning, the gender equality adviser of the university calls me and says, “Julien, this is leadership for women. You’re a man. You cannot attend.” It was the first time in my life that I was denied education based on my gender. This is my cultural perspective about what happened there.
However, why is the university doing this? Because the government had been putting in place a scheme that allowed the university to take candidates in full academic position before someone that has higher academic training if the candidates can document leadership training. By offering leadership training only to women, the university was fast forwarding the track of women into full professorship position at a place where less than 20% of women had professorship; I call this equality of result.
Not equality of opportunity; equality of results. I did not have the same opportunity to flourish to my full potential, but the result is that we have a balance in society. We enforce diversity, and there is a good reason to do this. Studies show that boards composed of both genders will perform 15% better then boards that are composed of mainly one gender. But studies also show that boards that are composed of different cultures will perform 35% better than boards that are composed of only one culture.
Cultural diversity increases problem-solving ability. It increases creativity and innovation. The real challenge here is to make people being able to communicate well together. And this you do through explaining cultural differences.
Two years ago, I was sitting in my living room. I was sitting there with a friend and we started to draw typical cultural situations. Then we made a Facebook page, and then we made a free website, and then I started to lecture all around the country. I’m happy to say we’ve just crossed one million people that have seen these drawings to help to connect culture. And the idea behind that project is to create a simple, humoristic way in connecting people of different cultures, especially in Norway.
You know that most people around the world are raised with the idea that they will need to contribute to a group, that they will be part of a group and interdependent on their members. And it affects the way people behave. Other parts of the world, especially the Western world, we raise our children to be independent and to be self-sufficient, and we create certain independence in society, and it changes behaviors. You see the difference?
This basic principle tells a lot about how you’re going to expect a friendship to look like. In certain societies where the group prevails, the friendship will be much stronger, in terms that people will live in symbiosis with each other and dependent on each other, and they will be expected to be invited to every single event that the very good friend will do. However, in other cultures, friendship will be much more distant.
I’ve asked a Scandinavian man one day what a good friend was. You know what he answered? “It is someone I can sit in silence in a room and feel comfortable.” If you tell this to a South American, they won’t understand what the principle is. This is about friendship and love, and contact with people is one of the six basic human needs. If you’re not able to see how this friendship and love is communicated to you because you are blinded by your cultural glasses, you will spend years believing you have no friends.
You will spend years believing that people are rejecting you. It is about changing these cultural glasses. This is when you know that a Norwegian bus stop is full and that you need to stand. What happens if you sit in the middle? It could very well be that one of the two persons stands up, takes a step aside, starts playing on his phone.
Now, what if you look different? What if you’re wearing a religious symbol? How easy it is to believe that the person has moved away because you’re of a different skin color or of a different religion? A typical cultural misunderstanding and a very basic of human interactions: you’ve come into the personal space of someone who has a much bigger personal space. In most cultures in the world, there’s place for four people on that bench. Not understanding these very subtle physical differences with people will actually lead to lot of miscommunication.