When I came to this country at the age of eight, one of the first things my parents taught me in order that I might fit in to my new environment was that “when in Rome, you do as the Romans.” This is something I have adhered to all my life and to a great degree allowed me to flourish here and operate effectively in many different cultures during my career.
Those of you who have read my articles (Psychology Today ) and my book (What Every Body is Saying) know that I subscribe to the concept of mirroring or isopraxis as the best way to establish social harmony and thus, at a very deep and powerful level, “psychological comfort.” Psychological comfort, as I have often stated, is what guarantees that others will want to be with you, will like you, and will want to open up and share their experiences with you. It is also how we engender trust.
No American diplomat or businessman past or present lived this concept of isopraxis and psychological comfort better than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is a hero to me and others who have studied him because he personifies the American dream. Self taught, self educated, incessantly observing the world around him, he is arguably America’s premier entrepreneur and pragmatic individualist, who went from being homeless at 17 to world renowned in under 25 years.
As I wrote in Louder Than Words, Franklin understood people and he understood the power of nonverbal communications better than any politician of his day. A great observer, he learned to socially engineer his success by understanding what makes people comfortable and thus makes them trust him. He exemplified everything Daniel Goleman talked about in his books, Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.
When America had its back to the wall during the American Revolution, Franklin was sent, without any experience, as America’s first ambassador to France. There, he immediately, as perhaps only a self made person can, adjusted to the subtleties and nuances of the French people. France, a “highly contextual culture,” according to anthropologist Edward Hall, required the most delicate and nuanced communications: subtle, discreet, ever so gentle, for everything had profound meaning and consequences. Franklin seeing necessity, reinvented himself for his new calling and he adjusted very well. He in essence became French, adopting dress, demeanor, hair style, and their social ways. He even powdered his wigs.
When John Adams was later sent to France to assist Franklin in this endeavor (garner the support of the French against the English), Adams was aghast to see that Franklin had gone native “adapting” the French ways (mon dieu, sacrebleu)! Adams, as it turned out, would be our first “ugly American.” Demanding, disdainful, pushy, inpatient, unwilling to compromise, Adam would not in any way adapt to the French way and was consequently loathed. He paid a price for that, as did America. He was not welcomed then and later, when it was most crucial that he be there, he was barely tolerated by the French and their diplomats. For Adams, diplomacy was about brute transactions, for Franklin (he correctly surmised) diplomacy was about relationships and at that he excelled. Franklin, through his understanding of French culture, triumphed, getting the French to back the American colonies and thus, with their considerable help (weapons, money, gun powder, naval vessels), assured America’s eventual independence from England.
There are lessons here for all of us. I am often asked to teach about cross cultural nonverbals as though it were some sort of esoteric science. It is not. This is something that seafarers have long practiced and great diplomats have mastered through careful observation. But in reality we all have done this. Every time you move to a new neighborhood, a new school, or you vacation in another country, you immediately sense that things are different. The question of fitting in depends of course on how quickly you pick up on the behaviors and nonverbals of others and how quickly you adapt them to “fit in.” It is quite simple, when in a new territory you observe, you mirror, and you respect. If you make mistakes correct them, but don’t try to force your ways on to others. You may not do it perfectly at first, but your new friends or hosts will notice that at least you are sensitive and are trying.
Many companies are now sending their representatives far and wide into countries that were previously out of bounds for a variety of reasons. Businessmen from small towns in the United States now frequently meet in places they never imagined (e.g., Qatar, Vietnam, Paraguay, India). Very quickly they are learning to adapt and to appreciate the subtle nuances of each culture. You don’t have to know all the rules, many are published on the internet, but at a minimum, act respectful, be courteous, exercise good manners, which are always appreciated, and when in doubt ask. We cannot all be like Benjamin Franklin, he is one of a kind, but at least we can avoid being a cultural John Adams.
Tips For The Cultural Sojourner
1. Always be on the lookout for how people behave and comport themselves in other cultures. Your loudness may not be appreciated nor your large animated gestures.
2. Be humble, if you screw up, don’t be defensive. Admit that your behavior was off or that you did not know, and abide by the local norms. Simply apologize and acknowledge.
3. Inquire as to what is or is not permissible and by all means, and as you progress, ask them to evaluate you so that you also will honor their culture and increase your social intelligence.
4. Don’t act as though your culture or ways are better than their culture or ways. Some cultures are 6,000 years old and they are quite content with how they do things.
5. Adapting the ways of others to make them feel comfortable goes a long way toward establishing more positive relationships. Cultural mirroring has many rewards including psychological comfort.
For additional information please see the bibliography below or write to me through www.jnforensics.com for a more comprehensive bibliography on body language and nonverbal communications. Additional Psychology Today posts on the subject are located under Spycatcher or you can follow me on Twitter: @navarrotells. Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent, author, and lecturer.
Dresser, Norine (2005). Multicultural Manners: Essential Rules of Etiquette for the 21st Century. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Hall, Edward T. (1971) Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor/Doubleday.
Hall, Edward T. (1983). The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. New York: Doubleday.
Hoecklin , Lisa. (1995). Managing Cultural Differences: Strategies for Competitive Advantage. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison Wesley Publishing Company.
Walter, Isaacson. (2003). Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
Morrison, Terri & Conaway, Wayne A. (1994). Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to do Business in Sixty Countries. Holbrook, Massachusetts: Adams Media Corporation.
Navarro, Joe. 2010. Louder Than Words. New York: Harper Collins.
Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.
Samovar, Larry and Porter, Richard. (1972). Intercultural Communication: A Reader. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Copyright © 2010, Joe Navarro