My Cross-Cultural Connectors
Even though I work at a company that helps people embrace something new and different, recently I found that I had a tendency of staying in my comfort zone. So I stepped out and put myself in an experience that was night and day from my normal routine. In doing so, I learned how valuable it can be to have connectors, people who’ve already embraced the new and different, to help guide the way.
Before I talk about my experience embracing a new way of living, working, and playing, there are a few things to know about me and my history with “new and different”:
I grew up in the same city my entire life
I went to college 2 hours away from home
I live in Chicago, 11.4 miles away from the home that I grew up in
Until recently, I’d only been out of the country three times (all English speaking countries)
A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to travel to the Republic of Georgia and stay at YMCA Camp Orange with 30 people from around the world while we learned about overnight camping in different countries. I was surrounded by people from Eastern Europe and the Middle East – Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, and Syria. We each brought items, stories, songs, dances, and traditions from our culture to share at night while we spent the day teaching each other about problem solving, peace building, and some good old-fashion summer camp games.
Traveling 5,000 miles to the Republic of Georgia was daunting to me. I had no idea what to expect along the way; I don’t speak another language and most people I talked to about this trip didn’t even know where to find the Republic of Georgia on a map. Frankly, most of my friends thought I was going to the state that houses the Atlanta Falcons and the home of Coca-Cola. That being said, there would be plenty to learn and embrace in the Republic of Georgia.
Initially, the biggest difference you notice when you arrive is the weather. In July, the subtropics region of Batumi, Georgia gets up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit with 95% humidity. By comparison, Chicago summers average 82 degrees and 40% humidity. Since we were on the go all day, I figured we would head to bed early to relax from the heat and rest up for another day of intense sweat and exhaustion. I was wrong. As Nika, from Tbilsi, Georgia explained to me, “It’s so damn hot during the day, we stay up all night when it’s finally cool. It’s when we can be active.” Staying up until 5am with a 9am wake up call is fairly new and different to me; but staying up until 5am playing volleyball and talking about the stars, moon, planets and learning Georgian jokes is very new and different to me. By the way – most Georgian jokes revolve around cows, the police, and rural townspeople; find me an American joke that has all of those elements in it.
Some less obvious differences in culture are the traditions during meals and gathering times. During Georgian dinners, there is a table-leader called the “tamada” who offers toasts, grace, and a sense of unity among the table. Little did many of us know that you are not to drink or make any kind of toast until the “tamada” has spoken and offered his words to the table.
Luckily, I had many Georgian connectors on my side that helped explain these traditions to me – an instrumental part of navigating a new culture. My connectors became close friends that taught me cultural norms and traditions before I became caught off guard or crossed any cultural boundaries. Being prepared for this new culture helped create a sense of adventure for me while being unprepared might have led to insecurity or exclusion. These connectors went out of their way to explain Georgian culture to those of us unfamiliar and help us feel included at all times. Connectors in another culture, a new company, or anywhere new and different are instrumental to adopters – someone like myself. The people that play this role, formally or informally, are the keys to success in the adoption of change and the feeling of belonging.
By the end of my week in Georgia, I knew what it meant to fully embrace a culture, an attitude, and an experience thanks to connectors that understood what it takes to thrive in a new and different experience.