Our Norm is NOT Others’ Norm

by Rika Asaoka

Our norm is not others’ norm and it may be uncomfortable and threatening at times.

I attended a conference at one of the universities in Tokyo before the pandemic. The university was surrounded by beautiful nature and was spacious just like any other universities here in Perth. Being impressed with the surroundings and the campus, I walked into one of the buildings where the presentation and workshop took place.

Taking one step into the break up room, I felt as though I was drawn back to my school days in Japan. The room was painted with plain basic colours, grey and white and there were rows and rows of grey desks facing the blackboard on the wall in front. There were two TV monitors hanging for power point presentations.

Mmmm, “Where shall I sit?” I thought. My Japaneseness must have worked subconsciously, I found my humble spot closer to the wall leaving one desk between the people who were already sitting.

The differences in the learning set-up between that university and the universities I know of in Perth were obvious. That made me think.

It’s easy to say that kind of seating arrangement is old fashioned, doesn’t generate creativity nor encourage learners to contribute. However, there is more to the seating arrangement.

As trainers, facilitators, educators and chairpersons, we would normally like to create a safe, non-threatening space where people can be open and exchange ideas and opinions. What is a safe non-threatening environment? In multicultural environments, our usual arrangement may not be the best choice.

Imagine people who grew up in classrooms like the one in Japan, and then walking into a colourful room with chairs arranged in circles with no desks to be seen on their first day of university or at work. Would they feel comfortable and open? It would be intimidating. How about the way we call our bosses or lecturers? By their first names? Which is the norm in Australia? People who come from hierarchical cultures may experience some form of strange resistant-like feeling when calling their bosses or lecturers by their first name. If lecturers and bosses who came from hierarchal cultures were called on by their first name by Australia children, would they genuinely feel ok with that? How would that influence building trust and respect?

We need to be interculturally sensitive, adjust our communication style, invest in developing relationships and manage the uncertainty that cultural complexities bring. By doing these, we effectively use cultural diversity as a source of learning and innovation.

Australia is culturally diverse. We are made from other cultures. We ARE other cultures. Australia has enormous power and potential for innovation when we succeed in managing our cultural diversity. In order to succeed we need to question our norm.

If you are interested in knowing how to develop intercultural competency, please drop in for the See Me See You program.