A Zen Parable on Self Awareness

Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment.

Lao Tzu

Let’s step back and ask the obvious: why bother taking a cross-cultural view of anything, much less the business world?

One huge benefit is that you get to see yourself from a different cultural point of view, an exercise in enlightenment if you believe Lao Tzu.

Years ago a student of Zen Buddhism shared with me a parable that provides a good analogy:

Two tadpoles are swimming in a pond. Suddenly one turns into a frog and leaves the pond. Upon the frog’s return to the water, the tadpole sees the frog and asks, “Where did you go?”

“I went to a dry place, ” answers the frog.

“What is ‘dry’?” asks the tadpole.

“Dry is where there is no water,” says the frog.

“And what is ‘water’?” asks the tadpole.

“You don’t know what ‘water’ is?” the frog says in disbelief. “It’s all around you! Can’t you see it?”

The moral of the story: To understand others you must first understand yourself.

Extending the analogy, in the “pond of culture” values and assumptions are analogous to water. So immersed are we that we take them for granted. The tadpole can’t understand water until it leaves the pond and experiences dry, just as I can’t understand my own culture until I experience another.

This is the essence of gaining a cross-cultural perspective: it lifts you out of the pond, and in doing so raises sensitivity to others. Understanding other cultural perspectives raises self-awareness, which in turn creates favorable conditions for communication and cooperation.

An enlightened approach to the cross-cultural communication challenge means acknowledging cultural tendencies without painting groups of people with a single brush. The next post discusses variation within each culture, and tendencies that define what a culture believes its members “ought” to do.


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