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Learn a New Culture: Julien S. Bourrelle (Full Transcript)

Full text of author Julien S. Bourrelle’s talk: Learn a new culture at TEDxArendal conference.

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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.

And this is what we’re trying to do when we learn a new culture: it’s about learning to be comfortable in what is uncomfortable.

How is it possible that it is more comfortable for a Chinese woman to sit on a stranger than it is for us to sit next to someone that we’ve been commuting with for years but never talk to?

Personal space is very cultural. No? But what is culture? Culture is our mental programming. This is our mental programming that tells us what is good behaviors or bad behaviors, wanted or unwanted behaviors; what we should do or don’t do; what is welcome and not welcome.

And now I’m not just talking about national cultures, we also have sub-culture; it could be an organizational culture, the culture you have within a company or an organization, or it could be also a different culture in different social economy group within the same society.

And all of these groups, all of these cultures have rituals and have norms that we need to respect. And if you want to feel part of that group, you need to adapt your own behaviors to that one group.

There’s the outer shelf of culture and there’s also the inner shelf of culture. The outer shelf is everything we can see; the non-verbal, the verbal. The inner self is more of the values, the logic of socialization; how we understand in a deeper way, the cultures we’re interacting with.

I was invited to a wedding in Switzerland and it was a Swiss German girl that was marrying a Lebanese man. And when I came into the church, the two families were sitting there. On the one side was the Swiss German family; they were all sitting in silence, looking straight, waiting for the ceremony to start. On the other side was the Lebanese family.

Before their ceremony even started, the women were crying, the men were talking loudly, the kids were running around. It looked a little bit like this. If you’ve been to a multicultural wedding, you may relate quite easily. You could feel the cultural tension, the cultural differences.

Actually, in the middle of the ceremony when the man kneels down to put the ring in his wife’s finger, three people from the Lebanese side jumped on stage to take a picture of the man kneeling down, to the great despair of the Swiss German well-behaved family.

But luckily that evening, the Lebanese people had brought musical instrument. While they started to play, the Swiss German started to drink. And within a few hours, the Swiss Germans were dancing on the table, on the Lebanese beat; and they’ve been dancing there up until four o’clock the next morning, and both family lived happily since then.

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