Building Cross-Cultural Bridges to Create Happiness

man jump through the gap....
man jump through the gap....

As more and more emerging markets reach economic independence, millions of people are being pulled out of poverty. Access to clean, drinking water available on tap or toilets with secure sewage systems are positive steps that are easy to measure and quantify. Prosperity tends to make people happy, at least to a certain level. In a compilation of 100 university studies that I read this summer on the topic of happiness, researchers from 50 different countries point to the fact that using the GDP of a nation or the net income of an individual to assess the level of happiness people experience is entirely misleading. Money does NOT guarantee happiness. In fact, according to a study conducted in Island by Dóra Gudrún Gudmundsdóttir, our revenue accounts for only 4% of our happiness. This explains why there are so many depressed and unhappy people in rich countries.

In the classes we teach through our Global Awareness Program (G.A.P.), we talk about the necessity to find a good work-life balance. This topic is of utmost relevance to people who work across time zones, as Sundays in the Americas are already Mondays in the Far East, evenings can be mornings somewhere else and the urge to respond to queries that hit employees' inboxes at all times is hard to resist and often encouraged. As a result, people tend to work all the time and many of them complain heavily about this new technology-induced environment that seems to suck the blood out of them and leave them...unhappy. So, if research shows that revenue only accounts for 4% of our happiness, then what drives the remaining 96%? In that same compilation of research, put together by Leo Bormans to create "The World Book of Happiness," Richard Layard states that the factor that plays the biggest role when it comes to people's happiness is the quality of one's interpersonal relationships and the level of trust we are able to develop in each other. These findings are extremely relevant to the work we do as global "bridgers" and it is something that I have intuitively known for a long time. However, I did not realize until I read that book how crucial and fundamental those elements are to our psychological well-being.

This being said, if building trust and establishing relationships are the foundation of our happiness, succeeding in doing so across cultures is quite tricky as people do not automatically anchor their trust in the same values. Richard Lewis, the leading cross-cultural expert in which we base our training and consulting services, has identified that to build trust with someone from a linear culture, such as the United States or Germany, being direct, punctual, following through and being law-abiding will be necessary. Displaying those values when interacting with someone from Brazil will however not automatically lead towards trust building, as multi-active people crave other values, such as paying attention to their emotions, being family-oriented and mindful of the existing hierarchy while favoring a less direct communication. Reactive cultures on the other hand, such as China or Vietnam build trust by displaying great courtesy towards one another, being mindful of the common obligations shared as a society, being indirect in communicating, which contributes to preserving the collective harmony of the group. Because each of us is the by-product of the culture that raised us, we are by default siloed and blind-sided by our own values, unconsciously and wrongly assuming that what rings true to one, what is self-evident and well-known within our tribe is also self-evident across cultures. And because culture conditions every aspect of our lives, it is very difficult to remain aware of its invisible impact when interacting with people who have not been culturally conditioned the way we have.

Knowing that our happiness heavily relies on building trust and meaningful relationships, knowing that a considerable amount of our time is spent at work and in the case of a growing population interacting across cultures when at work, it is essential to develop the skills that will allow us to better understand one another by meeting the culturally different person half-way. Imagine a world where instead of judging a person based on the differences he or she projects when interacting with us, we would question the validity of our own positioning, pausing to assess if those differences could be culturally rooted. I challenge you to give it a try: for the next three weeks, each time you feel disappointment creeping in when interacting with someone from a different culture, question your assumption: did that person receive the same rules of conduct than you have? Does that person share your values? Your priorities? By forcing your brain to slow down, to pause and not automatically rely on its pre-existing frames of references, you will start looking at situations, conversations, and interactions differently. You will give yourself an opportunity to build trust with people who previously had a hard time earning it from you. You will be able to develop meaningful relationships with people you did not automatically care about and through that process you will find you become H-A-P-P-I-E-R!