Once upon a time, I did a lot of volunteer work with an international youth exchange organization. After a couple of stints as an exchange student myself, I worked with students coming to the US as well as US students (and their parents) preparing to go overseas. If ever there were an opportunity for a communication gap, cultural exchange is it.

Fortunately, people are more cognizant of the potential for miscommunication in cultural exchange, and this organization puts a lot of effort into building awareness as a weapon against it. In a nutshell, here’s how they introduce the topic to incoming students:

Say you come from Country A. Everyone in Country A is born with yellow glasses. Some people from Country A realize they are wearing these glasses and some don’t, but no one can take them off. Now suppose that one person from Country A visits Country Z, where everyone is born with non-removable blue glasses. A looks at Z through yellow lenses, and Z looks A through blue lenses. As A spends more time in blue land, she may assimilate into the culture and even be granted a pair of blue glasses. Remember, though, that A has to put the blue glasses on top of the yellow glasses. At best, A now sees through green lenses. If A doesn’t know she’s wearing glasses in the first place, she’s really going to be confused!

In case you haven’t figured it out, the glasses are the cultural influences that shape our individual perspectives. Even if we look at exactly the same scene as the person standing beside us, we’ll each view it differently. We can’t help it.

Here’s the bottom line. Our view of the rest of the world will ALWAYS be influenced by the experiences that have led us to today. Whether we are aware of it, our minds process new experiences by measuring them against the events in our past, searching for context. We can’t avoid it, but we are far better off when we recognize it. After all, how can you bridge a gap that you don’t know exists?

The next time you go into a meeting, ask yourself what color glasses you are wearing and how you would explain them to someone else. You’ll be amazed at how much more clearly you’ll see.

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