Layering Lenses: We are All Multicultural Individuals

“As an ethnic minority woman working in a large multinational firm, too often I feel like I have to learn only, to fit in. For the first time since I’ve worked here, I can now see, and explain, the unique and valuable perspective that I have to contribute as well!” she said, her face positively glowing.

The privilege of experiencing such affirming responses from Cultural Detective customers is part of what makes my job so incredibly worthwhile. This woman had just spent time creating her personal Values Lens, using Cultural Detective Self Discovery as well as a selection of Values Lenses from various other CD packages.

While the core of Cultural Detective is its process, which enables ongoing learning, collaboration and conflict resolution, the Lenses play an invaluable supporting role. As shown in the diagram above, one important role the Lenses can play is to help us realize that we are all unique, individual composites of the various cultures that have influenced and helped form us over our lifetimes. We are not “just” Chinese or Brazilian; we are much, much more than a single story, as Chimamanda Adichie so well told us.

In international cross-cultural work such as I’ve done over the past 34 years, too often people limit their definitions of “culture” to “nationality.” Culture goes way beyond nationality. Since by definition culture is the shared norms, values and behaviors of a group of people, culture can also include ethnicity, language group, physical ability or mobility, sexual orientation, or gender identity. More often than not, in my experience, while nationality(ies) tend to have a strong impact on our behavior, professional training, the culture of the organization to which the person belongs, the team culture, their socioeconomic level, generation, their faith or spirituality … all of these influence behavior as much as or more than national birth culture. It’s worthwhile for all of us to know ourselves in all the layers of our cultures: why we are the way we are, how we got to be who we are today. In this way we can better predict how we’ll respond, and better explain ourselves and our motivations to others, powerfully transforming collaboration.

People often ask me, where does personality end and culture begin? As a practitioner, my response is, “Does it really matter? Is there an objective, accurate answer?” We are all unique individuals and we are all also influenced by the multiple cultures in which we’ve grown up, been educated and trained, worked and lived. If we can keep our values and our goals clearly in mind, we can be flexible in our behavior and creative in our approaches, in order to perform at our highest and best in a broad variety of contexts.