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The Invisible Culture of TEDx Gramercy | Part 2 – The Cutting Board

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

There were so many words written that didn’t make it into my TEDx Gramercy speech, but that deserved to be shared. So I am going to gather some of them here. They are simply passages, not tied together in any particular way.

I hope by sharing they will add richness to our understanding one another along the way.

The Cutting Board from TEDx Gramercy Speech:

This is important - while culture is similar to an iceberg in content, the wave allows for the ever changing nature of things and the unpredictability of the group dynamic. Crossing cultures well and developing interaction intelligence is a process to navigate and that takes a lifetime to master.

For a long time now, I have used the metaphor that culture is also like a wave - an ever evolving system of patterns that shifts continuously. An iceberg is a good metaphor, but a wave is even better.

Communication causes and solves problems.

We need to remove the shame from being biased. To be biased is to be human. If we weren’t biased we may have been killed off ten thousand years ago.

Solutions that incorporate multiple perspectives will be successful in the long term.

I’ve met plenty of multicultural people who don’t know how to act in a multicultural way.

And the quickest solution to unhealthy generalizations is to be specific.

The 21st-Century Competency is intercultural.

What we know is exactly what we are supposed to know. It’s based on our experiences which we can’t just reverse. We have to work with what we have.

Interaction Intelligence requires the right attitude, practice, agility, dexterity and a continually updating knowledge base.

Expand the iceberg metaphor to 2, or 10 or 200 with each iceberg represents a different country, culture or person. What happens is, we use our own invisible cultures to interpret someone else’s visible culture and it’s a mismatch of meaning.

The work is not to get someone to agree with you. Nor is it to lean into our disapproval of one another, but to accept each other.

There are so many differing viewpoints and beliefs systems, it takes practice to figure out how to live well alongside the ambiguity that goes along with that.

And if there is one thing that is consistent across cultures, it’s that people do that for which they are rewarded, whether it is at the dinner table, in the playground, in school or at work.

Nowadays many of the people with whom I work may never leave their home countries and since developing interaction intelligence is a process, not an event the most powerful tool with which I can leave you is curiosity.

The expertise of Interculturalists is underutilized because it’s hard to explain how it’s impactful.

Once people have gone through the training, if done well, the way they approach people who are different has gone through a paradigm shift that enables them to cross-cultures more effectively. That’s good in one way, but it also distances them from their original mindsets, cultures and, potentially, communities. Because once we accept the validity of different ways of seeing things then there is no going back.

How can we shift from being at the center of the world and placing others also as main characters in our shared stories.

Seeing the world from multiple perspectives is the ultimate leadership skill that organizations would be wise to look for in their hiring.

A leader who can process a problem from multiple perspectives is someone who is capable of leveraging the fullest potential of their resources, both human and otherwise.

Intercultural competence is not natural. Just as learning to dance looks way easier than it actually is, learning how to cross cultures is harder than it seems at first too.

When we put another down, that is an expression of our Invisible Culture.

It’s also a symptom of potential ethnocentricity.

Accusing someone of being rude reveals that we are unaware of our own subconscious bias. It means that somewhere deep down inside we have the belief or assumption that our own way is the best way, and therefore the world should be judged from our eyes and viewpoint only.

The meaning of silence communicates approval sometimes, and disapproval others.

Whenever you hear a contradiction about a particular country it usually has to do with subcultural variations within that country – age, birth gender, region, education, socio-economics, race, profession, passion.

Directive leadership motivates some people and demotivates others.

I think Interculturalists need to claim the Hashtag #PerspectiveSciences. We have the data, now it needs to be coordinated, funded and continued to be studied.

So what to do? First recognize that people are made of up three things:

• Nature

• Nurture

• Culture

My experience with many of us expatriates is that we believe that their goodwill will be enough to carry us through the multitude of cross-cultural scenarios that will present themselves and it’s only until a couple of months into a transition cycle that it’s easier to realize it’s going to be harder than originally thought.

So how does one influence people who come from a different culture? Put on that wetsuit and dive beneath the surface of the waterline to discover people’s various operating systems.

Every person’s OS runs on differing values, beliefs, and assumptions.


  • We overestimate how good we will be at crossing cultures. Good intent doesn’t always result in good behavior.

  • Interaction Intelligence requires practice. It’s not natural.

  • The win/win is when all parties are treated as equals, even if people are at different levels in a group.

  • In-group behavior is much different than out-group behavior.

  • Context matters

  • The win-win is in shifting tolerance to acceptance.

  • Adaptation allows us to survive, but the less powerful will have the onus of adapting in potentially less healthy ways.

Like culture, with an iceberg you can only visibly see 10 to 20% of what’s actually going on, and when it comes to culture it’s the 80 to 90% you can’t see that really causes the miscommunications. So what is the 80 to 90% of culture that we can’t see? Well for example the values that your parents teach you or the belief systems of a particular community about what’s right or wrong or the assumptions that people make about how the world works or how it should be. Those are typically the things that we don’t know we’ll see about one another or have conversations about with each other at a party with a trip up when we interact with people who are taught and exposed to different norms and rituals and understandings about the world.

If you agree with me and people do that for which they’re rewarded, and you want to see some type of cultural or behavioral change, then instead of asking the person to change, adjust the reward within that system or community or workplace. Easier said than done, because that which is Invisible Culture is deep and enduring and it’s not easy to change your values/beliefs or assumptions even if you agree that some of them may be faulty. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes experience.

While my work was mostly focused on national cultural identities, I feel as though this model can be used with individual personal cultures personality being the culture of the individual, gender cultures, socioeconomic cultures, racial cultures, education cultures and even regional cultures within the same country.

I wanted to understand more about different cultures so I traveled around the world, lived overseas and even studied various languages to try to understand how language gives cultural cues that an outsider may not be even capable of picking up on.

Today with more and more people choosing global travel, international workplaces and access to people from all over the world via the internet, there is an increasing imperative to understand those who are different from ourselves. Even for people who remain in their hometowns their whole lives or prefer to be isolated from different cultures, personality is the culture of the individual, so thinking someone is rude is also thinking they are exactly the same as we are in nature, nurture and cultures. (Twin studies?)

The most common thing I am asked for by people who are working across national cultures is a list of dos and don’ts. And my first item on a list of dos and don’ts is don’t use dos and don’ts. Sure, generally speaking there are some guidelines like taking off your shoes before entering a temple in some parts of the world, but those shared norms don’t help with the tricky stuff like communication or how to motivate people. Silence, for example, means one thing in one country and another in another.

It is also human to need to organize the world into categories and easy to understand rules, but what I am suggesting when it comes to crossing cultures is to use Tools, not Rules. A tool is something that can be used across all cultures, and then applies cautiously with curiosity about the specific culture of each individual.

So generalizations have a diminishing point of return because when they are used as rules, they have a higher potential to be damaging. When they are used as tools, then they can open up a whole new world of wonder and understanding. Can you imagine a world where we listen in a way that the other feels heard? In some cultures the message is in the words that are spoken, while in others, the message is more in the environment.

One of the greatest challenges I hear from US Americans working across cultures is how to know when yes means yes and yes means no, because in some cultures it is rude to say no to someone who is of a higher rank if they ask if you can get something done by a certain date.

For example, if a leader asks an employee if they can get something done by Friday in the US then it is more polite to say “no” if they can’t do it and to request more resources, but in some cultures it is rude for the leader to even ask because they are supposed to know whether or not an employee has the time to get something done by a certain date.

Over time, I started to learn that often what makes somebody successful in one country could be exactly what causes that person to fail in another, and what what one person considers polite could be considered rude in another. For example growing up in the United States of America I often heard that a firm handshake was a necessity in creating a trusting working relationship. But then I moved to Singapore and learned that in some places the firm handshake can actually be a sign of disrespect.


  • In some cultures eye contact is necessary for building trust, while it others it shows disrespect.

  • Interrupting is rude / interrupting is accepted as normal part of fluid, bonding filled exchange

  • Strong handshake / weak handshake

  • Asking employees what they think they need to do / Telling employees what they need to do

  • Speaking up in a meeting / Staying quiet in a meeting

  • Taking your shoes off when you enter a home / leaving your shoes on when you enter a home

Since starting my work as an Interculturalist, I did my own unofficial anecdotal research by asking US Americans that came through my training room what they think of a person who doesn’t speak up in a meeting. The overwhelming response was negative - they’re not a team player, they’re not tuned, in they don’t care about the job, they don’t know what the heck is going on and at worst, they’re stupid. Funny enough I would train another culture who would say why are US Americans always speaking up in meetings when there’s really nothing else to say. Who’s right? Is it the predominant culture? Is it the person with more power in the organization?

Just like with an ICEBERG, with culture you can only see 10-20% it was actually going on. As a result, it is human to judge based on what we can see, such as a culture’s food, clothes, architecture, behaviors - things we can tangibly see, but what usually trips us up when working with people who are different are the things we can’t see values, beliefs and assumptions. What happens when we cross cultures is that we end up using our own invisible culture to evaluate somebody else's visible culture and it’s a mismatch. Imagine global teams that have multiple cultures within their one team. (SLIDE)

The solution when you have that instinct I think someone is rude is to suspend judgment and seek out alternative reasons for why a person might be behaving the way they’re behaving. Why might a person not be speaking up in a meeting? Well maybe that meeting is in a safe place for them to speak. For example in some countries women won’t speak up in a meeting that also has men in the meeting but if you put them alone in a room then the ideas start to flow.

What if we reimagine the concept as rude as not a declaration of somebody else’s goodness or worth or behavior, BUT AS A GIFT OF SELF_AWARENESS. It’s a gift because when we think somebody’s rude it’s telling us that somebody has been taught something other than what we have been taught is right or wrong.

A few values that I have found that most healthy people agree on are:

  • Respect for Others

  • Acceptance That We Are Different

  • Adaptation is Necessary for Group Survival

  • Do No Harm

How to manifest those values in how we treat each other, communicate and interpret other people’s behavior is a different story.

And then what about being rude to ourselves? Some people are born to think it is their fault when something goes wrong while others are born to place blame outside of themselves.

My mother used to repeat that old saying, “Your rights end where someone else’s begins.”

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