Full text of author Julien S. Bourrelle’s talk: Learn a new culture at TEDxArendal conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Julien S. Bourrelle – Author
I had a great pleasure to live in Spain for two years. In Spain when you come into a shop, you say, ‘Hola!’ the cashiers replies ‘Hola!’ And then everyone else in the shops replies ‘Hola!’ It looks a little bit like this, and you feel very much welcome.
I was in Spain this summer; I came back to Norway, where I live, and then I got into a grocery store. And then I said, ‘Hi-hi.’ Suddenly, people are wondering, ‘Why is he saying hi?’ because they’re expecting me to start a conversation, to ask a question.
Greetings means something different; they’re much more purposeful; they’re much more pragmatic. And this is one of the first thing you realize when you move to a different culture. Yeah, it’s the outer shelf of culture. And it’s not just about greetings, it’s about how you do it and when you do it.
I was born and raised in a French-speaking part of Canada. And in that part of the world, like in many other places around the world, when you leave an event or you leave a party, you’re going to go around and say goodbye to everyone. So, you’re going to go around and shake hands with every man and kiss every women. It’s expected; it’s welcome; it’s part of the cultural rituals and norms. Actually, if you don’t do this, you will feel a little bit uneducated.
If you do this in Scandinavia, you’re weird. Yeah? Why would you go and disturb someone in the middle of a conversation just to say goodbye, when you know you’re going to see the person again. Yeah? Greetings is the outer shelf of culture, and this is one of the first challenges you will meet changing culture.
People like to call me the rocket scientist, which is not entirely true. I studied Astrodynamics, which is a sub-field of mechanical engineering, studying the rigid body motion of human made spacecraft outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Something quite different than culture and social anthropology.
Yet, it is through studying rocket science that I’ve learned about culture. When I was 20 years old, I had never been outside Canada and I could only speak French.
10 years later, I had lived in five different countries and learned four new languages. And in each of these countries, I’ve made a conscious effort to observe how people behaved and communicated, and adapt my own behaviors and ways to communicate to these people so that they feel comfortable around me.
And this is what I’m trying to do today; that’s the reason I’m here today and the reason why I wake up every morning. I go around the world, helping people to communicate across cultures. I help people to see the behaviors of others, not based on what it means in their own culture but based on what it means in the cultures of others.
I was in the very remote region in Sichuan province in China. I was sitting in a bus in the morning and the bus was starting to drive. It was pretty empty when I sat in but then suddenly, people started to come in. And at one point, it was completely full. And a woman that was older than me, came into the bus.
Since I was born and raised in a Latin culture, my mom had always told me to leave my seat for women. And so, I stood up and I indicated, she could sit. And then she said, ‘No.’
And since I had been living in certain countries in Europe and learned that when a woman says no like this, you should just sit down in silence and look down and don’t say anything, yeah?
So, I did that, but then something very special happened. She looked at me, she smiled, and then she sat on me. But not only did she sit on me; in that part of China, people don’t have hair on their arms. So, she was sitting on me, pulling my hair and laughing about it with everyone else in the bus.
As you can imagine, this did not feel very comfortable for me but it seemed to be quite comfortable for her because she sat there for half an hour, yeah? And everyone was laughing. So I thought, ‘Okay Julien, just try to enjoy the moment.’ And so I started to laugh with them.
And you know, well, it was a long bus drive and what that meant was that two families felt very comfortable and they ended up inviting me for dinner that night when we arrived to the village, and I ended up to stay over a couple of nights at one of the family, because I’ve managed to put myself in a situation that was uncomfortable for me and become comfortable, so the locals felt that they were much closer to me.