Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Understanding Global Differences – Is It As Simple As When We Brush Our Teeth?

Before I jump into the philosophy behind the article title, please let me offer my sincere apologies to recent comment posters here at Aussie Pete. Due to the fact that I am still in China and access to the Aussie Pete URL is intermittent (thanks to the Great Fire Wall), I am not in a position to be able to respond to comments (or in the case of spam, delete comments). I have therefore put ‘moderation’ on all comments, so that I can review them before posting. I am not trying in any way to minimize the freedom of speech of any of my readers. If, for some reason, you do not see your comment appear within about 48-hours, it may mean that I would like the right to reply, and will therefore post the comment upon my return to Singapore.

Thank you also to the kind people that have sent me well wishes for my family and friends in this time of crisis in Australia with the recent spate of bush fires that has created havoc, destruction and in some cases, loss of life. My family and friends are all safe and accounted for. My prayers to the victims and their loved ones.


Now, to explain the intriguing article topic:

Most conflicts in the world today (and throughout history), are as a result of misunderstanding or intolerance, or a combination of the two. Whether the differences stem from religious beliefs, political ideologies or personal opinions, it is often the need of one person (or group of people) to champion some sort of ‘change’ in the other person or group.

In the past, I too was often critical of certain viewpoints or beliefs that some people had, and based on my own upbringing, culture, set of beliefs and therefore my own ‘ladder of inference’, I always believed that ‘my way must be the right way’.

When I first married into the Chinese culture, many so-called friends warned me that I would be required to ‘change’ in order to completely fit in with my newfound family. This led to much trepidation on my part, and caused me to investigate many ‘case studies’ of other marriages of westerners and easterners. To my amazement, I came across many cases where the cultural divide had become all too much for some of these couples, and the results were unhappiness and broken marriages. Then I went one step further and looked for the real reasons behind this (as well as the reasons for some highly successful long-term marriages and relationships).

What I then discovered was not very surprising. It was not actually the cultural divide that was predominately an issue… it was in fact what many marriages born in the same country also experience – the need or want of one person to have their partner ‘change’ in their ideologies or beliefs to that of their own.

This desire for change is very rarely the catalyst for a happy marriage (or happy society, or happy country). Things we learn as children are often so embedded into our psyche that a desire for such a fundamental change can cause severe anxiety and often lead to very serious conflict.

So, you may ask, what has this got to do with when we brush our teeth?? I actually think it is quite pertinent… let me explain:

As a part of my current role, I also lecture on behalf of a certain University to business professionals and executives, on how to drive change and improve efficiencies by using some basic digital six sigma tools. One of these tools is “VSM” (Value Stream Mapping), which assists in exposing waste within processes. Without boring my readers here on the theory of applying this tool to business processes, let me just say that the tool is a visual way of describing any process and the time it takes to perform activities within that process.

One of the simplest ways to share the knowledge is to apply VSM to an everyday process – most commonly I will do this interactively with the class participants and ask them to describe what they do each morning when they prepare themselves to go to work – from the time that they wake, until the time that they arrive at their office.

The responses are nearly always the same – activities include: using bathroom, getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc etc… but there is always one major difference.

I was actually interested in how the participants would respond to the question: “When do you brush your teeth? Before or after breakfast?”… the reason I was interested, is because this was one of those cultural and deeply-seeded differences that had been discussed in depth in our family home.

Far be it from me to generalize about a particular country or race, but after asking the same question dozens of times in more than twelve different countries across Asia Pacific, I can safely say that in most of these countries there is commonality in response… one way or the other. For example, when I ask the question in any city in Australia, around 99% of people will say “after breakfast”… when I ask the same question in Beijing or Shanghai (or numerous other countries in the central to northern part of the region), the same number of people will respond “before breakfast”. One particular country is split 50/50 on the question, and in one country (which will remain nameless), most people will not even brush their teeth at all in the morning.

So what does this mean?? It means that I was taught at a very young age that in order to prevent tooth decay, I must brush after every meal. My wife was taught at a very young age that to remain healthy, the mouth and teeth must be thoroughly cleaned of all the toxins accumulated in the mouth after sleep before ingesting any food.

Sometimes the discussion in the classes I facilitate can get very intense and passionate (especially that 50/50 country)… neither side will back down on their long-term belief and knowledge of the matter – “How can you eat with a dirty mouth??”… “How can you let your teeth get holes??”… Well guess what? – neither side will be likely to win the argument or to persuade the other!!

This is also true when it comes to more serious global matters. If this passion can be seen in something seemingly so minor, no wonder people cannot change others’ perspectives, beliefs or point of views on the major things. It is deep-seeded and runs very, very strong indeed.

The best we can do is accept and tolerate that there are differences, and appreciate and respect one another’s view points, regardless of whether or not we too have the same beliefs.

My wife and I don’t argue about these things at all – we’ve learned to embrace the differences and discuss openly and honestly our feelings. This helps is rejoice in the melding of our diverse cultures… it is fun and exciting… it also helps us calmly discuss the bigger picture with family and friends with an open mind… China-Tibet relations, Taiwan and Chinese Taipei… we may have different view points, but all we need to do, is to remember when we brush our teeth… so all is well.

Aside: I do feel a little sorry for our baby boy, Jaime – I guess he’s going to have to brush his teeth twice every morning… before and after breakfast!! :D

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