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Reduce Anxiety and Stress Related to Cultural Interactions

2 October, 2015 - 10:50

When we feel we are capable of accomplishing a goal, we have positive emotions. When we know that we do not have the abilities to accomplish the goal, our emotions and mood for the activity are less positive. How we feel can be a deterrent to our success by affecting our attitudes and perceptions of who we are and how we will achieve our goals. Our negative moods can create stress, anxiety, frustration, and fear—all which do not serve you in intercultural work. As a leader, you should help support strategies that reduce the stress and anxiety related to unfamiliar cultural situations. And, if you are the one who gets anxious, stressed out, or disinterested, you should find strategies that work for you. The following are some tips for reducing stress and anxiety related to unfamiliar cultural settings that can bring about a more positive outlook:

  • Keep a stress journal. Use the journal as a way to track your physical and emotional responses to unfamiliar cultural settings. As you write out your feelings, you will begin to see common themes and patterns in your behavior. When you can identify what makes you stressed and how you typically respond, you can find the appropriate strategies to reduce your stress level.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. When we are stressed and our anxiety is high, we often cannot see the opportunities and positive outcomes in intercultural relationships. Keeping a gratitude journal enables us to identify the pieces of the relationship or the situation that contributes positively back to our self-development, even though, at the time, we may think it is the worst thing to have happened. Writing down a few things you are grateful for in the situation helps to shift your mind-set and calm your physical and emotional state.
  • Break your goal into smaller, manageable steps. For example, if you need to learn a new language and culture but it seems overwhelming, break that goal into smaller tasks over time. Do not take on more than you can handle. If the time does not allow for it, ask your supervisor for support and ideas to make it more manageable.
  • Express your feelings and emotions in a healthy manner. For example, you need to be able to communicate your feelings and thoughts to your supervisor. Your concerns should be expressed in a respectful manner. If you do not share your concerns with your supervisor, you will build resentment and emotional clutter around the situation. If this continues over time, you build unhealthy habitual patterns and responses every time you are in unfamiliar territory.
  • Be willing to compromise and let go. Working with cultures means that you have to be adaptable and willing to let go of what you know. You have to be flexible or else you are always going to have problems that frustrate, disappoint, and anger you.
  • Stay calm and focused on the task. The more anxious you are, the more you visualize and paint a picture that creates more stress for you. According to Bandura, 1 your stress level can impair how you function inter- and intrapersonally. Staying calm and focused helps you decrease your stress and anxiety.
  • Recognize that you cannot control culture. Culturally intelligent leaders know that culture cannot be controlled. It is ever changing, never static. You have to recognize that there are times in cultural situations that you cannot anticipate, no matter how much you have trained, read resources, or lived in the culture. As in life, there are many things that are out of our control. We cannot expect that our intentions will always have the impact we envision it to be. This is why focusing on the things we can control, such as our adaptive responses to another person or culture, is better than stressing about what we cannot control.
  • Be willing to forgive. People make mistakes. At times, people are not aware of what they have said or the implications of what they have done. When it comes to cultural intelligence, you have to be willing to forgive others both for what they are conscious and not conscious of doing, saying, or feeling. If you cannot forgive, you are going to have a hard time working with unfamiliar cultural environments.
  • Keep your sense of humor. Working interculturally can be both tiring and exhilarating. There will be times when you make mistakes and feel disappointed for not picking up the cues or for not “knowing what to do.” Keeping a sense of humor about culture lessens the stress. You have to be able to laugh at yourself; otherwise, the challenges of cultural differences become too much to bear.

I once consulted with an organization that had a tool called “The Wizard.” This tool helped organizations to be more accountable and transparent in their use of charitable donations. They wanted to expand their tool to a diverse audience. In a session focused on thinking about how the tool could be more accessible, it struck us that, in one of the languages, the word “wizard” translated into “Shaman.” In this community, the shaman happens to be someone who is wise and connects with the spirit world. Can you imagine going into the community and talking about how “the shaman” will help you to be more accountable? We all laughed, and we also used this as an opportunity to discuss the challenges of accessibility.