Last week I was in Malaysia, having lunch with the Belgian Trade Commissioner to discuss ideas about a forthcoming trade mission from his country to Malaysia.
He mentioned to me that he had been in his current posting in Kuala Lumpur for 6 months. Prior to this posting his last visit to Kuala Lumpur had actually been 30 years earlier as a foreign student. He revealed that when he received news that his posting was to be in Kuala Lumpur he was very excited at the prospect of living once again in Malaysia and for the opportunities it would afford him to revisit a place of his youth, where he had many happy memories. His expectation was that there would be some new challenges but that largely it would be a reasonably easy transition.
What he very quickly discovered was that the entire physical environment had transformed, there were many new buildings, new streetscapes, freeways, condominiums etc., it was a completely different landscape. It was a landscape that for the most part was unrecognisable to him.
I asked him why that was surprising and his response was as follows: "In Europe, I can revisit a city after 30 years and the landscape is the same, the major buildings, streetscape, topography etc.; but in Kuala Lumpur it has completely transformed." On further conversation, we established that even though Kuala Lumpur had changed radically, there remained certain landmarks such as the river, eminent mosques, museum and the palace.
Following this conversation I began to reflect on what culture entails. Culture is dynamic, constantly evolving and transforming yet there are certain values that remain constant. In the case of Malaysia, although there are new landscapes and the physical environment has changed enormously over a 30- year period, the values of hierarchy and respect, communication patterns and the maintenance of harmony continue to have remained constant. It is the yin and the yang, it is both modern and traditional. Culture is similar to the elephant, it is large, moves slowly, has deep memories and moves in herds.
Don't be fooled by superficial symbols that you see in a culture. Remember to appreciate and consider thoughtfully the underlying values (especially those that you can't easily observe) that influence thinking patterns and behaviours - these are present in all cultures.
If you would like to read 'Cultural Intelligence for Knowledge Transfer Teams' please click here. We are always interested in your feedback so please let us know if you have any!
Send to Friend