Our Hidden Cultural Assumptions

One reason I love to travel is to submerge myself in a culture that is different from my own. The good news is: one need not necessarily go far to find cultural pockets that are vastly different from one’s comfort zone. Here in Richmond VA, I could probably find dozens of cultural pockets among our different communities and neighborhoods.   Indeed, the American melting pot is a mélange of different viewpoints and perspectives that makes for a rich and often spicy discourse.

The bad news is: when cultural differences clash, they are often ascribed to personal failings or cultural judgments.   For example, we just returned from a vacation through central Europe which was book-ended by visits to the beautiful cities of Berlin and Munich. Both cities were immaculately clean and efficiently run. Berlin felt more modern due to more new construction in the city central compared to Munich. However, Berliners seemed less adept at rolling out the welcome mats compared to the citizens of Munich. The less-than-welcoming treatment in Berlin had us somewhat dreading the return to Germany for the latter part of our trip.

I was thrilled to admit we were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome in the more southern city. That contrast and happy failure of my expectations invited me to consider the parallels between Berlin and the Chinese, New York and Parisian cultures. Not generally known for their hospitality, these regions are overflowing with good-natured and hospitable people who may be poorly understood and judged by visitors. I warned Chris that our enjoyment of a future trip to China may be less enjoyable because of the Chinese habits of pushing and shoving, talking loudly, cutting in line, and shortage of Western-style courtesy (please, thank you, holding the doors, giving each other personal space). We can either approach other cultures with openness and an eye toward a culture’s unique expression of creativity, humanity and industry, or we can find all the ways that the culture doesn’t measure up to our own by applying a strict, American-style definition of hospitality. Which is likely to be more enjoyable and enlightening?

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” ― Abraham Lincoln

Being open to another’s cultural reality can open up one’s eyes to other perspectives. The trouble for me is that my cultural assumptions are automatic and ingrained. I feel I’m generally a fairly open-minded and accepting person but I was a bit taken aback by our treatment by the Berliners because they did not treat me as I am accustomed.   Later, when I stopped to consider the emotional and psychological impact of decades of occupation and division, I began to see the locals in a new light. I also read about the German culture and their tendency to be very direct, which by our American standards can be interpreted as harsh. I also have to somewhat humbly recognize my own tendency to be direct and how that is often misconstrued.  Now, instead of focusing on how Berlin hospitality falls short, I can better try to appreciate the perseverance, forthrightness and resilience of citizens of this city that is now a thriving metropolis.

I hope this renewed sensitivity will help me to continue to try to understand and appreciate our human differences, especially when my first reaction may not be so positive.   I shouldn’t need to travel abroad to appreciate these nuances, I can find them within my own family, workplaces and communities. Who have I misunderstood and misjudged? Who has misjudged me? What impact does that have on my perspective? How can removal of judgment allow me to better contribute to that rich world?

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” ― Lao Tzu

We enjoy local culture and cuisine

We enjoy local culture and cuisine

6 Keys to Balancing Optimism /Pessimism

From the keyboard end of this blog, it’s pretty easy to talk about theory and advice. Effective practice is an entirely different matter. In fact, writing helps me to better understand my challenges as often as it is sharing hard-earned wisdom.

Finding the right blend of optimism/pessimism is one case in point. I can go either way, depending on whether I have had my hot button pushed or some unresolved emotion simmering beneath the surface. When I have my emotional house in order, it tends to be pretty easy for me to stay on the positive, optimistic side.

Some folk lean toward pessimism even without that simmering emotional undercurrent.   Either way, I think it’s important to keep in mind the following concepts when trying to find balance:

  1. Have perspective – Recognize that all events are neutral. We assign meaning and value to them, which are purely subjective. In other words, there is no hard and fast rules regarding whether to take a pessimistic or optimistic view on life events. Likely you are choosing your perspective more out of habit than any real thought. Be more intentional and less emotional about your interpretation of events. If you tend to one extreme, practice viewing it from the other.
  2. Optimize strengths – Your strength might become your burden if you misuse or over use it. Those with a positivity strength may be unrealistically positive, and those with a problem-solving (restorative) strength may be overly negative. Develop your toolkit such that it allows you to take a more balanced perspective.
  3. Learn optimism – Optimism can be learned (see the book Learned Optimism for more details). There are 3 parts to optimism: pervasive, permanent and personal. Optimists tend to think good things are pervasive (universal and ubiquitous), permanent, and to a lesser degree personal (the result of one’s behavior), whereas bad things are not. Pessimists tend to believe the opposite.   Consider these factors and challenge your habitual thought patterns. For example, thinking my good luck and good health will last forever is unrealistic. In order to take good care of myself and increase the odds of good health and longevity, I must recognize the risk involved in an unhealthy lifestyle and act accordingly.
  4. Put limits around your habit – Thoughts and focus are a habit. Recognize your habit to think in a given pattern, then give yourself permission to indulge in that habit but define an end point. Then spend some time deliberately practicing the opposite behavior. If that’s difficult for you, partner with someone who can help you find more balance. Schedule that balance into your day, process or project so you are sure to follow-through each time until it becomes your new habit.
  5. Evaluate before you speak or act – You might be going off on one extreme internally, but be deliberative about how you express yourself. Reflect to find a more balanced perspective or delivery method for a given audience and situation. For example, thinking through your points before speaking or acting and finding a more neutral tone can make you more persuasive and effective. Notice people’s reactions when you act more deliberately. Do they respond in a more favorable manner? If so, keep it up. If not, try something a little different.
  6. When in doubt, err on the positive – Well-being expert Tom Rath (author of Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life) recommends that we spend 80% of the time being positive. This will improve your interactions, relationships and productivity.

As with all habits, they take time, effort and commitment to change. Reflecting on what you plan to do, anticipate opportunities to practice the change, and reflecting again afterwards will help make theory a reality. In addition, writing and discussing your plans and outcomes add another level of commitment to your new goals. In the end, change is about good old fashioned hard work. Pretty soon, your new behaviors will feel natural and you’ll wonder what the big deal was.

Making the Most of Optimism

Did you know that optimists are happier and more successful than pessimists?  It really does pay to cultivate your optimistic side.

I can just hear the pessimists grumbling under their breath that optimists are unrealistic and Pollyanna-ish.  It’s true.  We do tend to overdo it sometimes.   I tend to go straight to starry-eyed idealism way too quickly.  On the other hand, I contend that pessimists tend to go into the Debbie Downer too quickly, dragging down the collective energy and motivation.

What is viewed by scientists as the right balance for that optimism/pessimism spectrum is called realistic optimism.  In other words, keep your optimism within the realm of do-able to optimize your ability to move forward but in a sensible manner.

I know I need reminders of this on a daily basis as I set overly ambitious schedules and task lists for myself, and worse yet, for others.  I know that I create unnecessary stress for everyone with my over-ambitious scheduling or goals.  Here is where realistic optimism could really help improve my quality of life, relationships and even health.

Though realistic optimism has real benefits in certain situations, I counter that there is also room for unrealistic optimism, albeit at much smaller doses.  For example, do you think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Usain Bolt, J.K. Rowling, Stephen Spielberg, and YoYo Ma always settle for realistic optimism?  How do breakthrough performances and technology occur without dreaming, risk and failure?  What fun is it to play it safe at everything we do?  Is there not room, or even a need, for ambition in the areas of our passion?

Be realistically optimistic, except for one goal in one area of your life.  For you, where and what would that be?  If you can change your corner of the world just a tiny bit, how would you do it?  What would it be?  How can you make it happen, one realistic bite at a time?

Seven Rules of Engagement and Marriage

Eat your vegetables. Brush your teeth. Get plenty of sleep. Wear your seatbelt. Pay your taxes.

These are the lessons we learn from our parents and teachers about how to get by in this world.

Advice about relationships? [crickets]

Yes, the former are important, but beyond our basic physical and financial needs, what is more important than relationships? Relationships give our lives meaning and purpose, and failure to have successful relationships makes success in the other domains of our lives very difficult if not impossible.

The permanent nature of marriage makes that relationship all the more important. I’ve struggled as much as the next gal when it comes to relationships but I have learned a lot in the meantime. This is what I’ve learned so far about the ingredients for a successful marriage:

  1. There is no Win-Lose – If you’re fighting to win, you’ll ultimately end up in a Lose-Lose. Aim for a Win-Win instead. Win-Win requires you truly try to understand and accept the other. If you just assume your partner is crazy, immoral or stupid, you’ve headed into the Lose-Lose even if you may feel like you’ve won the battle.
  2. Relationship first – Sometimes the relationship must take a back seat to other priorities like kids or job, but that should be the exception rather than the rule. Also, you should both agree on the rules or circumstances when those exceptions are mutually agreeable and necessary.
  3. Learn to balance needs and boundaries – We all need to have our boundaries – knowing what absolutely will and won’t work for you mental and emotional well-being. However, we also have to be able to step up, be flexible and stretch for what our partner needs.   For example, is that a real boundary, or just an assumption you have not revisited in decades? The conflict in your relationship is natural and necessary. It does not mean that something is wrong. Rather, it is your opportunity to find the path through it and the growth opportunity in it – together.
  4. Don’t keep score – We don’t always see or remember what our partners do for the sake of the relationship, but we tend to remember the sacrifices we make. Therefore, don’t keep score; it just builds resentment. Instead, find new ways you can be a better partner.
  5. It’s not your job to fix someone else – As glorious as you are, you have your own growth to attend to. Focusing on someone else’s mistakes and necessary growth only highlights your own needed development.
  6. If your partner is not happy, you’re not happy – Treat your partner’s happiness, satisfaction and success like it’s as important as your own, because it is.
  7. Remember, you’ve made a promise to be in it for the long haul – If you only had one pair of shoes to last you until you die, how would you treat them? (no offense for the old shoe comparison) You would clean and condition them daily and be vigilant about repairs before irreparable damage occurs. You wouldn’t use them to kick rocks around or play in the mud. Treat your relationship like the precious gem that it is and it will last a long time.

These have been hard-earned lessons for me. What is missing from this list? Share your wisdom.

Do You Work For A Positive or Negative Organization?

People often use the word “positive” or “negative” casually to refer to the general feel of a situation, person or organization.   To those of us who are positive psychology practitioners, the word “positive” refer to the focus, emotions and behaviors that are generative and result in productivity, engagement and positive emotion like creativity.

According to Jane Dutton of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan, positive organizational scholarship refers to the study of positive psychology or flourishing in the context of organizations. Organizations that help their employees flourish would therefore focus on strengths, engagement, positive emotion, a sense of shared meaning and positive relationships. Managers would help employees to be successful, feel empowered and confident, which ultimately improves performance, worker satisfaction and retention.

I’m not sure whether someone has defined a negative organization. The absence of a positive organization does not necessarily imply that the organization is negative.   Even the presence of negative emotion is not an indicator of a negative organization since negative emotion is part of the normal range of human response and can also be adaptive under certain circumstances. Perhaps if behavior and emotion are on a spectrum or even a bell curve, then the majority of organizations are probably somewhere between what might be defined as a positive and negative organization.

Given there appears to be no definition for a negative organization (my apologies to research I may have missed, I didn’t really look that hard), we can assume that the focus, emotions and behaviors are unproductive in a negative organization. Do we spend most of our time looking for problems, punishing and correcting, treating each other as irrelevant, obstacles or means to an end? Do we tend to feel discouraged or inspired, ignored or appreciated, helpless or empowered, indifferent or motivated?

The good news is that all organizations can learn to adopt more positive behaviors and improve the culture.  What does your organization do that moves it to the negative end of the spectrum? What can be changed easily? Is the organization aware of the impact of the negative practices on the bottom line? Have you been settling for a culture that fosters negative emotion and conflict?

I know it’s tough to just change jobs in this economy, but in the end we have a collective responsibility to cultivate the best possible culture and outcomes for our organization. Self-awareness as an individual and an organization is the starting point for improving effectiveness and leadership. This change and awareness may have to start with you.