Living and working across cultures

by Jörgen Eriksson on June 26, 2013

Kofi Annan“We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race."

Kofi Annan, born in 1938, secretary general of the United Nations from 1997 until December 31, 2006. Born in Ghana and educated in the United States, Annan was the first UN secretary general from sub-Saharan Africa.

Sometimes we write about cultural challenges in the global workplace on this blog. Bearing is an international, multi-cultural consulting firm so the topic comes naturally to us as we travel and work with our clients across national and cultural boundaries. My colleagues Anders Fogelström and Maria Sporre have written several, in my opinion, smart articles on this topic.

With globalisation we have entered a multi-cultural world where understanding of each others background and culture is more important than ever. Culture can be understood and experienced in many ways. The best is most likely to live in the alien culture and learn it from within, as Anders Fogelström wrote about in this text, but doing so is a time consuming process and it does not prepare us for the initial chock of moving there.

bookshelfMedia can help us understand foreign cultures. Recorded music, cinema and television has helped a lot. Historically, however, it is in written and oral tradition that culture has been transferred across generations and explained to foreigners. The greatest legacy we have is the wealth of written books that have been published since Johannes Gutenberg invented mechanical printing and started the Printing Revolution, widely regarded as the most important event of the modern historical period.

Written language presents an extraordinary opportunity for sharing powerful multicultural perspectives. Multicultural literature opens up the world, allowing us all to hear voices both different from and similar to our own, both from within our own community and beyond. I remember in 2006 when I was a student at the Stockholm School of Economics and the Nigerian writer Woyle Soyinka won the Nobel Prize of Literature that year.

Kongi's Harvest (play).jpgI was in the audience when Soyinka delivered his Nobel acceptance speech, "This Past Must Address Its Present", which was devoted to Nelson Mandela. Soyinka’s speech was a criticism of apartheid and the politics of racial segregation imposed on the majority by the nationalist South African government. I found a link to a recording of the speech tonight, at the Nobel Prize Academy´s home page.

The next day I bought and read Soyinka´s book Kongi´s Harvest, which describes an African dictator who tries to reach his goal of modernization by any means necessary and despite tribal resistance. That book was my first introduction to African culture.

Powerful literature can transport the readers into a world where they can feel the joys and struggles of others and where they can inhabit the cultural landscape the characters live in. However of all the  130 million (according to Google) books that have been published in all of modern history, most of them are written by and for the western culture.

Yesterday, my colleague and friend Mandla Sibeko showed me the video of a TED talk that made me realise the challenge we have with this. The talk was by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a female Nigerian writer.

In the talk she makes an extraordinary argument for how our lives and our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories, and how she found her authentic cultural voice. She also warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Below is the talk. Enjoy!

The Danger of a Single Story

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