My husband thought I worked for ASIO

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When I first met my husband (Shanton) he thought that I must have secretly worked for ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation). He also thought that I stared at him a lot. I didn’t find this out until much later, and at the time he told me, I thought this was hilarious and when I share this story to people in workshops or in life, they also find it funny.

Whenever I talk to friends, family and clients and deliver courses, the topic of conversation inevitably turns to culture – this includes many aspects of cultural differences as well as how to show respect and build rapport, and since meeting Shanton nine years ago these are subjects I have learnt a lot about and continue to learn more about as time goes on.

I have written in a previous post about how we do cross cultural marriage, so if you want to read a bit of a back story of how two very different people met, fell in love and make it work, feel free to check that article out here.

So, back to ASIO. The reason he thought this was because of the fact I asked so many questions. I have always been a curious cat, curious in the extreme really, just ask any of my school teachers since the beginning of time and anyone who knows me. I ask a LOT of questions.

In Shanton’s culture however, questions are considered rude. They can’t ask questions of people who are senior to them, they can’t ask questions such as what a person does for a living, how old someone is (this is particularly important if the person is senior to you) you can’t ask about marital status, and the biggest taboo question of all is when a woman is pregnant to ask when her baby is due. I met countless people who Shanton introduced me to as his wife and I never got the name of most of them either and I didn’t ask. One day I asked Shanton what our neighbour James’ mum’s name was, so I could address her properly, he looked at me curiously and said, ‘It’s James’ mum’.

I could fill a dictionary of all the things you don’t ask, so it’s easier to just summarise by saying – don’t ask. My best advice when dealing with anyone from a culture you aren’t familiar with is to be guided by how the person engages with you. Questions such as ‘how are you?’ ‘how is your family?’ and ‘how is your health?’ are usually ok across most cultures. My Mum often laughs when recalling Shanton coming home to bring a friend to introduce to her and mostly he didn’t know their name, so he would say ‘Mum, this is my good, good friend’.

Somehow, in Ghana they get to know enough about each other to not need to ask questions like we do. It boggles the mind of people like us in Australia, because that’s how we get to know people right? Maybe it gets back to the fact that people mostly live in a community setting and already know enough about each other to not need to ask too much?  I don’t know, even after all these years it puzzles me, but one of the things I learnt about living in another country myself and with a person from another culture is to be guided by them when it comes to relating to other people. Showing respect is paramount and if a person feels disrespected you can forget about building any kind of relationship, no matter the culture.

Now the staring thing. In the West, we show respect by making eye contact when someone is talking to us or we are talking with another person. However, in many cultures direct eye contact is seen as threatening, rude and inappropriate. This has variations from culture to culture and there are subtleties about eye contact that can vary between married to single, junior to senior, male to female etc. When it gets down to it eye contact in developing countries and some of our more traditional cultures is more often than not seen as inappropriate. Shanton really felt I stared at him, I saw it as gazing lovingly into his eyes of course. He initially saw it as strange and rude and didn’t know how to respond. We had an interesting conversation about this just today which has led to this post. After so many years in Australia he now appreciates, and values eye contact and it has become the norm for him.

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When he visits Ghana however, he is now seen as odd, and people often ask him why he is staring at them, one man asked ‘Sorry do I know you? Why are you staring at me like that?’. Today he told me something that he hadn’t shared or perhaps realised before. He recently returned from a visit to Ghana, and he told me that his uncle has been unhappy with him, although he didn’t tell him directly. Shanton was told it was because he no longer showed him the respect he previously had. Other people have also commented that he no longer respects his senior family members. The difference between the past and now is one thing – eye contact.

I found this fascinating. The fact that he was in his newfound way showing respect, was in fact having the opposite and unwanted effect with his family and friendship groups back in Ghana.

These are just two of the myriad of cultural differences that I find so interesting. I could write a book there are so many, but these are particularly important, as showing respect and building rapport are the building blocks of establishing a relationship of any kind. It is even more critical when you are supporting someone in a counselling or therapeutic relationship or informally when checking in to see how they are going, perhaps when offering Mental Health First Aid.

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Here are a few ideas I have found helpful so far in terms of building the initial relationship with someone if you are unsure of how to engage and to ensure you are showing respect.

  1. Be guided by the way the other person engages with you, and follow suit. For instance if they make brief eye contact and look down or away, don’t take offence. They may be showing you deep respect. This is hard to get used to, as we have been taught the importance of eye contact but it can be quite confronting for some.
  2. Don’t assume physical contact is ok, for instance don’t shake hands if the person doesn’t initiate it. Better to greet warmly without reaching out unless the person reaches out first. For some people shaking hands is just not ok, and especially between men and women.
  3. Be careful with the use of humour, particularly sarcasm. This is a particularly Western way of interacting but it’s usually lost on someone not accustomed to it. Humour varies greatly and it is tricky to navigate, so tread lightly. My husband still doesn’t get my dry sarcastic wit sometimes, although he now proudly states “this – is going straight to the poolroom” when he gets a gift. Over time he has become a huge fan of some of our iconic Aussie comedy films.
  4. Approach sensitive topics gently and gauge the response before probing too deep. Observe the person’s non-verbal reaction to your question or comment before continuing along that line of conversation.
  5. If you inadvertently do something that seems inappropriate, don’t be afraid to apologise, we are all human, and showing vulnerability and genuine concern is always appreciated.
  6. If you do ask questions, consider the motivation behind them. Before he got used to being bombarded with a gazillion questions, Shanton occasionally asked me ‘what are you going to do with this information?’ a response I found intriguing. When you are working in a supporting role, it is always helpful to check yourself before enquiring and consider ‘for whose benefit am I asking this question?’. We often ask questions out of our own personal interest, especially when faced with something different to us, but in fact when helping someone, questions should largely be for the benefit of the client or person you are talking with. Questions should assist an individual to find the answers within themselves, unlock what they already know or assist them to move forward.

Lastly, and most importantly, enjoy living, laughing and learning from the incredibly diverse, wonderfully rich and beautiful blend of cultures we are blessed to call family, friends, colleagues and community in this great big delicious melting pot we call home.

My life is certainly richer for the experience.

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I got a letter in the mail

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Today I went to my post office box to collect the usual statements, bills and whatever books I’ve bought this week. Books are my guilty pleasure and no matter how much I tell myself I’m not going to buy any for a while, I can’t resist. Anyway I digress.

Amongst the usual assortment of expected items was a letter.

A hand written letter.

From a friend.

A letter!

Oh the joy and delight at seeing that beautiful hand written envelope addressed to me from a dear friend. Kay, knowing that I was in your thoughts and that you took the time to write to me, just made my day. My first instinct in our social media world that I’m so entrenched in, was to take a photo and put it on Facebook. However I resisted the urge.

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It was so nice to sit down when I got home with a cup of tea and read the lovely letter. I remember a few months ago taking a Facebook holiday as I was feeling overwhelmed by the constant flow of information, memes and offers to make six figure incomes. I updated my status to let friends know, as they are used to chatting with me via messenger, that I would be offline for a while as I didn’t want them thinking I was ignoring them, or perhaps that something untoward had happened. I suggested a phone call, a text or an old fashioned letter as a way to stay in touch during my period offline. I exchanged addresses with Kay at that time, with the very best of intentions, but I didn’t get around to it.

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Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

Well today, she brought me so much joy by that simple but so very meaningful act of putting pen to paper. When I was a teenager I used to write letters all the time. I had pen pals in many countries and it was such a thrill to get letters from them. Ah those were the days. (imagine reminiscent sigh and pause here). When I moved to South Australia in 1981, my best friend Lissa and I used to write really regularly to each other, and a few friends and I shared the very occasional letter. Lissa and I were very consistent though. This was back in the day that an interstate phone call was reserved for incredibly special occasions or emergencies, as they were just too expensive. Letters were it. I was only thinking the other night about my old metal biscuit tin that is in my keepsake box in the shed, it is brimming over with letters that I haven’t looked at in years. I think it might be time to take them out.

In this time of instant feedback being given and expected through all forms of communication we have become used to, the beautiful art of letter writing has been sadly put to rest by so many of us. I’d like to start a revolution. A letter writing revolution.

Can I suggest you take a few minutes to make someone’s day today. Drop them a note. Let them know you are thinking of them, the old fashioned way.

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The art of listening

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“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought and attended to my answer.” Thoreau.

In my work as a facilitator, coach and mentor and in my personal life as friend and family member, I believe that the greatest gift I can give to another is to listen. What do I mean by listening? I mean to be present, hold the space, make eye contact and just listen. I’m the first to admit I occasionally (ok not just occasionally) get caught up with the constant buzz and distraction of notifications, beeps, message tones and pings, but when I’m connecting with another person I do my best to be just there, full stop.

First of all I’d like to say what listening is NOT:

  • Something you do while waiting for your turn to speak, to sound clever, to respond, to add value to the conversation.
  • Making shopping lists in your head, wondering what the football score is, or thinking about what to make for dinner while the other person opens their heart and mind.
  • Something you do while scrolling through Facebook, reading or responding to a text. It can wait, it will all still be there, I promise.
  • A burden, a waste of time or an inconvenience.

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So what IS listening?;

  • A privilege, a sacred space where another human being is sharing thoughts, feelings and experiences.
  • Opening your ears, heart and mind to be present to another.
  • Keeping your mouth closed for a while, we have two ears and only one mouth for a reason.
  • Being open to learn something.
  • Allowing silences, which is something we are not comfortable with. Just for a change, don’t rush to fill them, allow them to be and wait for the other person to fill them. Silences are where the gold often comes from.
  • An opportunity for growth, for yourself and others.
  • An opportunity to deepen and enrich relationships.
  • Sometimes listening can be enough to save a life.

In my work as a facilitator and coach I teach the importance of listening and it’s one of the most common “take home” messages and ‘aha moments’  that people come away with. During Mental Health First Aid training I like to share a video from Kevin Briggs who is a retired police officer who previously patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge. Kevin shares with great heart and passion the difference that just being there and listening can make, and yes it can make enough of a difference to save a life. If you haven’t seen his incredibly moving and powerful talk, I highly recommend taking the time to watch it here.

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We also need to remember that listening is just one part of the whole package of effective communication, which I will write more on later. Communication is my thang and I could write and talk about it all day. One of the greatest compliments is to be told I’m a good listener, and one of my biggest ginormous huge peeves is to not feel heard.

For now, how about the next time somebody calls you (you can tell if somebody is still scrolling when you are on the phone, the idea of multi tasking is a myth, please don’t do it!) or sits down to have a chat, whether it’s about the awesome restaurant they went to, their marriage, kids or other important and meaningful topics:

  • Put your device on silent and turn it upside down.
  • Look them in the eyes.
  • Set aside any judgements.
  • Show empathy.
  • Open your ears and truly listen to what is being said.
  • Allow for those uncomfortable yet delicious and golden silences.
  • Listen, listen, listen.

The difference it can make is amazing and I can guarantee you will both feel better and more fulfilled for the experience and who knows, it might just become a habit!

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