Cross-Cultural Fluency & Being an Outsider (Part VI)

NOTE: This is Part VI of a series of blog posts related to cross-cultural fluency and the family business.

I recently heard a radio ad for a jewelry store. “Your granddad shopped at our store—and you can, too.” The commercial angle touted the longevity of the store and its tradition of serving generations of customers. My instant thought: my parents and grandparents were suffering through the Second World War, intermittently starving, enduring persecution and running for their lives. Not looking for jewelry.

More basically, this radio ad highlighted my unique—and different—background. Essentially, it reinforced the idea of me being an outsider, not having the same cultural reference points as others. This experience is shared by immigrants of many sorts and their first-generation offspring in a new country.

What is it like to exist within a society but to never feel like you belong? To feel somehow and in some way that you are an outsider? Immigrants from various countries and backgrounds have the same sense that they don’t belong—they have grown up in a different time and place. This has shaped their outlook and worldview. Without an understanding of their life experience, it’s hard to understand them or to work with them.

In the previous series of blog posts, I highlighted commonalities among different ethnic groups that move to and often prosper in Canada. In total there are six commonalities—or factors—I referred to collectively as the “Cross-Cultural Fluency Model.” Each factor in the Cross-Cultural Fluency Model is one aspect of the nature of the interaction between a particular Subculture and the Dominant Culture. The factors discussed in previous blogs included: the immigrant experience, the view of family and of the family business. A fourth factor, discussed in this blog, is the dynamic of forever feeling like an outsider.

For many subculture groups, particularly those who are immigrants, they will constantly view themselves as outsiders to the society of the Dominant Culture. Meanwhile, those who are part of the Dominant Culture are swimming with the tide and never consider whether they are inside or outside of the mainstream. Immigrants are accustomed to being on the outside, such as the story of Asa Johal cited in the Part I blog post. They differ from what is considered “normal” in so many ways, from their names to their food, their daily habits to their language. In addition to these natural disparities, they often face hostility from the wider community when they attempt to assimilate; the result is that they form their own distinct groups, sometimes developing an antipathy to outsiders.

One example of a distinct ethnic community in Canada, including many recent immigrants, are the Mennonites who are in but not of the society. Many recent Mennonite immigrants came to Canada, shortly after the Second World War, having been uprooted from their colonies in the former Soviet Union and having ended up in war-torn Germany. There are many successful Mennonite entrepreneurs across Canada, many that are immigrants or first-generation offspring of immigrants. Despite the process of assimilation, at the core of the Mennonite identity remains a separation from mainstream culture. Mennonites have often referred to themselves with the German phrase as “Die Stille im Lande,” meaning “the quiet in the country.” The implicit meaning of this phrase: “keep your head down, don’t attract attention and just go about your own business.” Among the Mennonite community, the concept of being distinct and separate from the mainstream is encapsulated in the German noun, “ein Englischer.” The literal translation is “an English person,” but really it is used to refer generally to non-Mennonites, to those outside the community. This description reflects a generalization that anyone from the outside falls within this very general category.

Language often reinforces an outsider status. Immigrants frequently view their language as a bulwark against being swallowed by a hostile society, although this dissipates with assimilation, particularly beyond the first generation. The use of language also reinforces a distinctness from the mainstream. When immigrants have their own unique language, they often work hard to preserve it—not only for themselves but also for future generations. The movie “My Big Fat, Greek Wedding” had a great scene where the central character is languishing in Greek Language School on a Saturday morning. That scene has played out in many ethnic groups. Saturdays were not for leisure and sport.

The feeling of being an outsider to the Dominant Culture is counterbalanced by an emphasis on the bonds within the ethnic community. There is a common need among humans to feel, included and a part of an extended community. This is often reflected in the tendency to place people in a family/cultural tree. For example, among Dutch immigrants there is a pattern of introduction: as soon as a Dutch person meets a fellow Dutch immigrant, they exchange names of relatives and acquaintances until they find someone in common. This is sometimes called, “Dutch Bingo.” The route is the same as the “Mennonite Name Game.”

At the same time, of course, many members of the subculture, desire and work hard to be part of the Dominant Culture. This process is typically accelerated for first-generation individuals, who grow up in the new land, learn the language and the customs. Often it is the immigrant parents drawing the first generation back to the language and customs of “the old country.”

In short, members of the Subculture will act very differently than members of the Dominant Culture in particular settings because they feel like outsiders. When it comes time for individuals working with successful family business owners, who are part of the Subculture, this must be borne in mind. We instinctively think in terms of making connections. The way to serve people is to respect and understand their background, and this dynamic of connection. The members of the Subculture will often not be motivated by the same norms and have different reference points for definitions of success. They may be far more interested in what their peers in their Subculture think of them than in the broader community.

The importance of understanding the notion of being an outsider is one more pillar of the cross-cultural fluency model which helps in understanding newcomers from various cultural backgrounds as they fit into Canada. At Nicola Wealth, the firm where I work, cross-cultural fluency is an asset in understanding and relating to newcomers who have started family businesses and who have prospered, generally, by playing the long game.