Thursday, 27 September 2012

POC: Cultural Awareness

Increasing our cultural awareness is a significant part of POC. This is not just making us aware of PNG culture, but aware of our own cultures and how they shape our judgements and reactions. I have found this last part the more significant as I live and work with people from across the globe. Each nation has its cultural norms, but within that is still a great range of expressions and experiences.

To increase our PNG cultural awareness we have had a series of lectures on PNG life and culture. They have covered topics such as kinship, the spiritual and the physical and the relationship of the two, the significance of gift giving, the community based nature of decisions and life as well as the value of relationships over tasks. It has been good to get a range of pointers for what to look for and questions to ask. This has been much more helpful than being given all the answers, as PNG has such a plethora of cultural expressions that there is no such thing as one PNG culture.

Before coming to PNG, I was warned that the biggest conflicts are often between co-workers, not with nationals. It can be the small cultural differences that chafe the most and, as we all know, chafe is the enemy. Our sessions on multi-cultural teamwork have been aimed at reducing this chafe by introducing understanding. The model we’ve been working within has two main scales; the hierarchical to the non-hierarchical culture as well as the strong to the weak community. PNG has a very strong sense of community, the US a weak sense of community. Australia is somewhere in between. This makes for PNG a communal culture and the USA an individualistic culture. Each has its strengths as well as its weaknesses, as well as its conflicts with the other.

In reflecting on where I fit in these scales, I am constantly evaluating my responses and expectations. This allows me to understand both myself and the people around me. I can better see why I find some people greedy and selfish; they are living out their individualistic culture. The same people often have a great self confidence, which can appear as arrogance, as their individualistic culture has given them a valuable sense of their self worth. Meanwhile, I can find myself struggling with my own self-worth, as the communal culture knocks tall poppies down. Yet, on the communal end of the scale I value the sharing and care that occurs, that PNG people are very good at including people. Where greed is the sin of the weak community, envy is the sin of the strong community as that which is yours is, or at least should be, mine, so I may as well take it to even things up. The individualist points and says ‘thief’ while the communalist indirectly agrees with their peers that the other person is selfish and greedy. Name-calling rarely helps. Understanding and adjusting our behaviour is more helpful.
Learning traditional roofing

Cross cultural child care

 I find that years at sea have taught me to function well within a hierarchy, yet on land I lean towards weak structure and consensus. PNG, Australian and North American cultures all function within a low hierarchy. Our European and Asian colleagues are more comfortable with the rules and social order of a more hierarchical culture. Many at POC struggle with the set schedule, doing activities they do not like and living to rules they would write differently, as they are from the low hierarchy culture. Life here is less ordered than at sea, so I fit into it easily enough for the time we are here.

We’ve talked about many more things like this, including the different cultural values and divisions of personal and private, clean and dirty, what constitutes a ‘proper’ home, good and bad, the causes of sickness and conflict and much more. Learning basics for reflecting on culture has been an important part of POC. Many things I’ve learnt before, but encountering them again while I am in another land and surrounded by people from a variety of cultures and places has meant I’ve had to constantly be putting them into practise, which is the best way to learn. Hopefully now I not only survive, but thrive within a multinational organisation in PNG as  I continue to live and learn. -->

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