Last week my organisation farewelled ‘May’ and ‘Charles’, two librarians from China’s Shandong Province who have spent the last ten weeks working here in Adelaide with the State Library of South Australia on an exchange program.
I hadn’t had a lot to do with May and Charles during their stay, but before they left for home, I invited them to attend an hour-long meeting with me to talk about bookselling in China.
I had an ulterior motive for the meeting. I went into the discussion with the express intention of employing some mindfulness techniques that we had discussed in my MBA studies.
There’s a growing body of academic thought around cultural intelligence, cultural mindfulness and cultural metacognition. Being ‘culturally mindful’ means one is aware of the cultural context, consciously analyzes the interactive situation, and plans courses of actions for different cultural contexts. (Forbes, ‘Why you need Cultural Intelligence‘).
My casual chat with May and Charles was certainly no politically-charged debate or high-stakes negotiation requiring any significant degree of cultural agility on my part, but the discussion gave me a small opportunity to take a mindful approach, gauge actions and reactions, and to adapt my demeanour accordingly.
I went into the meeting with the express intent of obtaining an understanding of bookselling in China. I wanted my subjects to do the bulk of the talking, so that I could glean as much information as I possibly could.
I opened the meeting with an informal chat about May and Charles’ experience in Australia and asked them to tell me about their favourite activity during their stay. We also spoke about their families back in China and I empathised with them for being apart from their loved ones for such a long period of time.
With the pleasantries out of the way, I explained the reason for my meeting invitation and proceeded to ask them a series of open questions. I spoke slowly and used a gentler tone of voice than I normally would in everyday conversations with fellow Australians; I was more deliberate in my enunciation of important words and avoided using complex sentence constructs; and I adopted an overly-friendly and happy demeanour, to match the effervescence of my Chinese guests. At all times, I remained aware of the manner in which I was projecting myself towards them and looked for cues in their voice and body language to identify any underlying subtext.
Prior to my conversation with May and Charles, I was aware that bookselling in China is subject to strict state censorship laws. I was unaware of how sensitive this issue was for my Chinese guests and chose not to raise it expressly in conversation, although I was hoping to understand more about it. As the discussion progressed, Charles raised the issue himself and was quite happy to talk about the Chinese Government’s restrictions on foreign books.
When May and Charles spoke, I concentrated on listening intently to their responses and being ‘present’ (I am not renowned for being a great listener, as my wife will attest to). I prompted them to keep speaking by using encouraging body language, including regular nodding and smiling. I didn’t interject unnecessarily, despite opportunities to do so. Where I struggled to understand a particular word or sentence, I politely asked them for clarification or to explain in more detail.
Half way through the conversation, Charles mentioned that he found it very easy to understand me (I must have been doing something right). He explained that he had found it difficult to understand the colloquial language that had been used by other staff members. I mentioned that I had studied the Bahasa Indonesia language in a formal context and I too had found it difficult to understand the day-to-day conversational language spoken by the majority of Indonesians. Accordingly I had been careful not to use any slang or informal language when conversing with them. They were appreciative of this and the fact that we had all studied foreign languages served as common ground for the three of us.
Our conversation ended with handshakes, hugs and a promise to keep in touch. Later we shared a soft drink whilst reviewing Charles’ wedding video and photos.
What is very apparent to me is that the key tenets of cross-cultural mindfulness – showing respect, patience, tolerance, awareness and adaptiveness – are not too far different from those required of everyday interpersonal relationships with fellow staff, suppliers, partners, children, parents, neighbours and friends.
If only those tenets were applicable in negotiations with my five and seven-year-old children.