David Livermore

“As we gain an understanding of what's going on internally, we need to apply that same kind of awareness and understanding to others and to the environment around us. I've done ongoing research on the experiences of North Americans who volunteer overseas for one or two weeks. Most of these volunteers travel to developing countries where they help with disaster relief, build medical clinics, teach English, or engage in religious mission work. Of all the comments made by these North American travelers, the most common statement made upon their return is something like, “Even though those people have so little, they're so happy!” There's something endearing about hearing a group of relatively wealthy North Americans talk about their amazement that people with so little could be so happy. My question is, are the people they observed really happy? I've asked several hundred of these volunteers, “What makes you think they're happy?” They most often respond, “Because they were always smiling and laughing. And they were so generous to us. They fed us better than they eat themselves.” Part of becoming more aware of others requires we slow down to ask what familiar behaviors might mean in a different culture. The observation made by these American travelers is usually accurate—the locals they're meeting are in fact smiling and generous. But the question is whether the North Americans are accurately interpreting what those behaviors mean. First, if you don't speak the language and you're just meeting someone for the first time, what do you do? After some feeble attempts at saying things like “Hola!” “Gross Got!” or “Nee how!” there's often some nervous laughter that ensues. It's really awkward. So the locals might be expressing happiness or their smiles might just be a nervous response. Then add that in places like Thailand, where there are twenty-three different smiles, each smile communicates something different. And in one small, extremely polite community in New Zealand, smiling reactions are a way of expressing that they feel deeply offended.4 As I've consistently said, the point isn't to learn every nuanced meaning. But with heightened awareness of others, an individual will realize that while smiles might reflect genuine happiness, they just as well might be a nervous cross-cultural response that indicates little about one's level of contentment.”

David Livermore, Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success
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Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success by David Livermore
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