Eating and Aging, Giving and Receiving
Sharing a guest blogpost I wrote for Akteos Cross-Cultural Training.
The Dutch belief that not only you, but everyone close to you is to be congratulated when it is your birthday took me some time to get my head around.
Part I of this blogpost focused on the rituals of celebrating birthdays at work in the Netherlands and the USA. In Part II we look at some of the more “touchy” issues related to birthdays in the USA, as well as what birthdays reveal about the meaning of relationships in both cultures.
In the USA where fairness and equality are fiercely guarded rights, employee birthdays have become breeding grounds for other polarizing issues. There are passionate debates about whether or not it is good to encourage eating calorie loaded cakes in an environment where there is an obesity epidemic. Others will take issue about their right to privacy about their birthday, as ”age discrimination” is a hot topic in the workplace these days. It all boils down to the belief that ”what is good for one has to be equally good for everyone.”
Many clues about the relationship between the individual and the group are revealed in the contrasts between Dutch and American birthday celebrations. Being put in the spotlight on the day of your birthday in the Netherlands is literally not a free lunch. It does entail certain obligations to others – such as providing cake and paying for drinks. In the states, however your birthday is celebrated either work or at home, others are expected to provide for all your needs, nothing is expected in return.
It's not only my birthday!
The Dutch belief that not only you, but everyone close to you is to be congratulated when it is your birthday took me some time to get my head around. I remember the first time I answered the phone on my Dutch boyfriend’s birthday. It was his mother on the other end of the line, enthusiastically wishing me “Congratulations!” Completely confused as I was, I was at first silent and then said,”……um, yeah, it’s Martin’s birthday.” I get it now, and on cue, whenever I attend a Dutch birthday party, I shake hands and congratulate everyone in the room, even if I don’t know who the hell they are, just to play it safe.
The shared sense of achievement at having reached the birthday milestone is another expression of the unique attitude of the Dutch regarding the individual/group relationship. On the one hand, birthdays are seen as sacred occasions, which must be recognized as meaningful both in the workplace and at home. In Dutch culture, your own birthday or the birthday of a family member is accepted as a perfectly legitimate reason to avoid or cancel business appointments. Americans on the other hand, are incredulous if you would even suggest to miss an important meeting because of a birthday celebration.
It’s not that Americans don’t find birthdays important, it’s that it is considered a more private and individual affair. As Americans tend to split up their relationships into groups and categories – work relationships, sports relationships, school relationships etc., they confine their birthday celebrations to the appropriate group. Birthdays are generally celebrated at home or in a restaurant after work hours with family and a select group of friends. There tends to be a lot of flexibility about the date. The preference is to choose a date for a celebration when most people will be available; the birth date itself is not so sacred. In this spirit, people will often plan large birthday celebrations several months before or after the date of their birth.
How to deal with birthdays in an intercultural working environment
Because of the different meanings cultures give to birthdays, being dismissive about them can cause friction on international teams. The seeds of resentment and apathy are sown when people feel that what is important to them is being disrespected. The task-oriented American business executive could be blinded to the sensitivity of this issue, and risk some diminished commitment of colleagues and direct reports.
On the other hand, when doing business with Americans, it’s important to recognize the ”work comes first” attitude, and to appreciate that it has contributed to the drive and success of US companies worldwide. You may not get your day in the spotlight at the office, but if you tell an American it’s your birthday, you can count on an expression of good wishes, and once business is taken care of, a free drink!
Cohesion Creator or Productivity Destroyer?
Sharing a guest blogpost I wrote for Akteos Cross-Cultural Training.
Don’t get the wrong idea: the circus has not come to town, and nobody has gotten a promotion. The big news is that someone you work with has a birthday today.
If you are an expat employed by a Dutch company, sooner or later you will discover an unusual installation upon your arrival at the office in the morning. Somebody’s desk area – it might even be your own – will be festively decorated with strings of colorful hanging flags suspended from above, while the chair may be festooned with paper streamers and balloons. When the desk’s occupant enters the office, everyone will immediately approach him or her, beaming with smiles, offering a handshake or a hug and warm congratulations. Don’t get the wrong idea: the circus has not come to town, and nobody has gotten a promotion. The big news is that someone you work with has a birthday today. It’s a signal to put them on a pedestal, take time out to honor them, and enjoy some communal coffee and cake together.
Star for a day
The ritual of celebrating birthdays in the work place is deeply embedded in Dutch business culture. Every department secretary is responsible for keeping an updated list of employee birthdays, and he or she decorates their work station before they arrive on the morning of their special day. If it’s your birthday it’s your moment in the spotlight, and you deserve extra attention and appreciation from your colleagues. The birthday ”star” is also expected to behave according to time honored rules. It is essential that he or she brings a respectable cake to the office, which is shared by all at coffee break at the end of the morning. During this communal moment, songs may be sung, birthday plans revealed and optional gifts presented. If in addition, drinks will be shared at the end of the day either in or out of the office, it is the birthday celebrant who pays the bill.
This charming tradition with its decorations, sweets and songs, resembles a condensed and streamlined kids birthday party. It is a sincere expression of the Dutch view of professional relationships, which strikes a balance between valuing the person as well as the tasks they are responsible for. Although taking time out to celebrate birthdays on a workday, however briefly, does present a distraction and interruption of the workflow, it provides a context for warm and personal social contact. This creates cohesion in the group. Thanks to your birthday, you are at least one day a year seen, heard and respected just for who you are, not for what you do.
Birthdays, time and money
In contrast to the cozy Dutch tradition, birthdays in the workplace in the USA are regarded as something that is okay to acknowledge if you have the time, but above all, don’t let it interfere with productivity. Because in the States time is money.
So if you’re lucky you might hear a hearty “Happy Birthday” said out loud by someone within earshot at the office, but don’t expect them to take their eyes off of their computer screen as they convey their best wishes to you. Or they might not waste time with that and just send you an email from across the room. If it’s a significant birthday, you might be dutifully joined by some colleagues for a drink after work – and lucky you, they will pay the bill!
Not all companies are as unfriendly in their view of birthdays. The ROI of employee appreciation is not overlooked, and so many employers will take the route of presenting a plant or a gift card to show they care, or post birthday greetings on the company intranet.
Birthday Team Building
Other U.S. companies will seize the opportunity for team building activities, by bundling all birthdays into once a month lunchtime celebrations. Sometimes it will be a pot-luck affair, which requires everyone to volunteer to contribute something to the meal. Employees can hone their leadership skills by rotating the role of coordinator of the event. Once the large buffet meal is laid out, those who have a birthday that month get the privilege of being first in line to pile the food onto their plates.
Unlike the Netherlands, bringing your own cake to the office on your birthday would be considered somewhat pathetic. Either someone else is thoughtful enough to bring it in your honor, or it just doesn’t happen. This can be stressful because it becomes a litmus test of one’s popularity at the office. People are left wondering if anyone will remember that it is their birthday, or if anyone in the office likes them enough to care about it. If a colleague does supply a birthday cake, there is generally no special moment of togetherness to share it. The cake is sliced without any fanfare, and left on a plate in a back room, where employees are free to help themselves to a piece throughout the day.
In Part II of Dutch vs. American Birthdays in the Workplace, we will cover some of the polarizing issues related to this topic in the USA. We’ll also take a deeper look at how celebrating birthdays reflects the group vs. individual preferences of both cultures.
My first In-Coaching blogpost - Thriving at the Top, was about the four cornerstones of thriving in the workplace : Growth, Health, Appeal, and Spatial Comfort.
These four perspectives can provide you with a useful checklist for monitoring your well-being on the job. However, the cultivation of a thriving existence is rooted in something deeper: Self-empowerment.
The opposite of thriving is surviving. Survival mode is activated in response to an extreme depowering event (crisis), in which basic human needs are undermined or denied altogether. In some cases life itself is at stake. Our adrenaline kicks in and hooks up our spare battery, channeling our energy reserves. We are able to make split second decisions followed by quick action.
Depowerment in the Workplace
While the work setting generally offers protection against life threatening situations, we can find ourselves routinely faced with moments or periods of depowerment on the job. The source is often external, such as a bullying boss, a company culture that promotes mistrust, new computer systems that don't function, or workspaces that are too noisy. We can also be depowered by our own thoughts, such as I don't deserve this promotion.
A knee-jerk reaction to depowering situations is to kick into survival mode, and that will work for awhile. The problem is sustainability. If you are continuously operating on high alert and hooked up to your spare battery, there is no chance for recharging. Your energy becomes depleted, your concentration diminishes, and the efforts you are expending are increasingly disproportionate to the results you are getting. Lurking just around the corner is burnout.
Freedom to Make Choices
While you may not be able to eliminate the source of the depowerment you are experiencing, you can choose another response to the situation. The key to transforming surviving to thriving is self-empowerment. This means cultivating an attitude that actively seeks options for change. In contrast to the cramped and frustrating sensations of depowerment, self-empowerment is expressed through the freedom to make choices that promote our own well-being.
Redirect Your Energy
How do you flick the switch to the self-empowerment mindset? The first step is to redirect your energy away from struggling against a depowering situation. Struggle is tiring - physically, mentally and emotionally. This doesn't mean you are agreeing with the behavior, policy or environment which you find depowering. But you can avail yourself of new reserves of energy by accepting that the situation exists. The new surplus of energy will nourish the thinking you need to take responsibility for your own empowered choice. In the words of Deepak Chopra, ''Responsibility means the ability to have a creative response to the situation as it is now."1
A creative response is anything that is not the usual default reaction. For example, instead of avoiding that colleague who seems to be undermining your work, you could invite him/her out to lunch. If your workspace is too noisy you can decide to wear noise-cancelling earphones at your desk. Is it taking longer to reach colleagues because contact information is out of date? Why not start an initiative to circulate updates?
Some actions might take you out of your comfort zone, or trigger surprised reactions from colleagues. What matters though is your outcome; rebooted motivation and a greater sense of autonomy in the workplace. That's self-empowerment!
What Do I Need?
Like anything worthwhile, reacting to challenges from a perspective of self- empowerment takes practice. A useful starting point when you find yourself in a depowering situation is to ask yourself the question ''What do I need?"
All answers are valid, even if all of those needs cannot be met immediately. You may not be able to instantly meet the need of lying on a beach in Greece, although hidden in that wish could be some sound advice to yourself to consider taking a vacation soon. But, I need to close my door and lie down on the floor for a few minutes to relax and clear my mind. is an expression of personal empowerment because you are making a decision to break form and do something different.
Operating within your own sphere of influence, there are many more options than you are aware of. What matters is not how big the action is, but that there is any action at all.
There's a famous saying: If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. Self-empowerment is the ability to identify your own needs and consciously make a choice to do something different in response. It's an invitation to be creative and practice out-of-the box thinking. Above all, it's the key to a thriving approach to life and work.
1. Ask yourself What do I need?
2. Take a (small) action to make a change.
3. Notice the difference for yourself.
1 Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Amber-Allen Publishing, 1994
Lisa Ross-Marcus is an Executive Life Coach and Cross-Cultural Consultant based
Imagine a much anticipated business meeting. After weeks of preparation, you are about to give an important presentation to an international team of colleagues.
Although everyone recognizes that their participation in this meeting is important, some strange things are going on. Five of the twelve team members are wearing identical bags over their heads. Two members of the team refuse to identify themselves at all, and sit with their backs facing the group. One person has come to the meeting wearing his pajamas while another member of the team did not show up and nobody knows how to get in touch with her. The meeting proceeds anyway as planned, but you are left with a queasy feeling afterwards. Were they really listening to my report? Did we all agree on the next steps? Do I actually know who was there?
If this scenario seems outlandish, think again. Because what is being described is a virtual meeting - a technology enabled gathering of individuals, often from diverse cultural backgrounds, connecting up from locations all over the globe. And although the kinds of symbolic attitudes and behaviors portrayed would be bizarre and clearly counterproductive during meetings in person, they are routinely accepted and unchallenged in the world of virtual communication.
A thoughtful and deliberate approach
How did this double standard arise? My take on it is that the technical possibilities for doing business virtually have evolved much faster than agreements about how to use them. What many people don't realize is that communicating through virtual channels needs a more thoughtful and deliberate approach than meetings in person, especially when crossing cultures. Besides being able to adapt your communication style to accommodate cultural differences, there are both technical and procedural factors which contribute to optimal virtual conversations.
One of the most basic yet overlooked ways to increase the effectiveness of virtual conferencing is to establish consistent standards about how participants identify themselves. When using a conferencing platform such as Skype or Webex, deciding whether or not to indicate your name clearly and post a photo of yourself and/or use a webcam when joining a meeting is often left up to the individual. The result is a lopsided conversation where some of the voices are anchored in a clear name and image while others are abstract and elusive. You may assume that everyone knows your voice and therefore knows who you are, but virtual conversations demand extra concentration, and people are often too busy trying to follow the content to try to figure out who is speaking. Or the opposite can happen - too much attention goes to trying to understand who is speaking, which can result in missing the content of the message.
When you are involved in a virtual meeting where your primary role is that of listener, such as a presentation or a webinar, identifying yourself clearly to whomever is leading the session is not just a sign of courtesy. Don't rule out the possibility that you might want to follow up with some questions or proposals to this person, or you might have some business dealings with them the future. The fact that you know who they are but they have no idea who you are could be awkward - or worse.
Closing the gap of sensory input
Providing visual information about yourself in conversations also resonates on a neurological level. When all we have is the sound of a voice to go on, many of the signals that help us to understand each other, such as appearance, body language, mood and context, are absent. So whether you are communicating by phone, conference call or through a computer, a visual reference of a video feed or a photo serves the vital purpose of closing the gap created by physical distance and lack of sensory input.
Particularly when working with colleagues located in other parts of the world, giving a visual impression of yourself is the first step to cultural bridge-building. You may never have the opportunity to meet each other in person, so a photo or a webcam answers the basic human need to be able to connect a face to a voice.
''I look terrible on photos''
When I broach this topic during trainings, there are inevitably some small ''aha'' moments followed by a commitment to post a photo portrait and start using webcams as much as possible. There are also some understandably more reticent reactions: "I look terrible on photos",
"I don't like to see myself on camera.", "We can't dress casually if our customers can see us", or ''Nobody knows how to use the webcam on the conference equipment.", to mention a few.
While the above sentiments are real, they do reveal a basic misconception about virtual interactions: that digital distance somehow lets us off the hook when it comes to being a totally committed partner in a professional conversation. Would you really consider delivering a report to your boss in your pyjamas? Would you arrive at a customers office wearing a mask because you don't like how you look that day, and proceed to give a presentation with equipment you have never bothered to learn how to use?
So by following the rule of thumb to engage in every virtual conversation with the same degree of alertness and commitment as if it was a face to face encounter, making yourself more "digitally visible'' takes on a new kind of urgency.
If you are still on the fence about raising your visual profile, it could be useful to reflect on your role and your purpose in the conversation / presentation. What could be the advantage of providing a visual reference to yourself in terms of getting your message across, or persuading others to agree with your point of view ? What could be the costs - short term and long term - of keeping a low profile visually, making it harder to distinguish your voice from others in a discussion. To what extent could that undermine you? Is there also some benefit to you?
6 tips for optimizing your personal ID on virtual channels
Remember: what you think and what you have to say is important, so make sure you are clearly identifiable as the source. Don't be satisfied with a white silhouette against a grey background. You are more than that! Take ownership of your virtual presence and start showing your face today.
Lisa Ross-Marcus is an Executive Life Coach and Intercultural Consultant based
Finally my website has been launched, and with it my first official In-Coaching blogpost . What better way to introduce myself than to provide some insight into the meaning of my slogan ''Thriving at the Top".
Survive or Thrive
From the very beginning of my work as an executive coach and cross-cultural trainer I have been interested in the notion of ''thriving'' in the workplace. The phrase ''survive or thrive'' is a handy expression of the contrast between an automatic pilot attitude of ''I'll get through this" on the one hand, and a present, energized and flexible approach to daily challenges on the other. The eager and open-minded conviction that "I love what I'm doing, I'm good at it and I accept that I can make mistakes and learn from them " is the hallmark of a thriving mindset.
A call to ''thrive at the top" is both a reinforcement of our right to pleasure and satisfaction on the job, and an invitation to keep realizing own unique potential.
We are not only capable of more than we think we are; we are able to venture out of our comfort zone, strive to achieve new goals AND retain a sense of well-being in the process. It's about being at the ''top of your game'' and in a way that sustains your energy instead of depleting it.
I'm not talking idealism, I'm talking strategy.
Thriving 101: The Basics
How can you thrive at the top? To thrive means to flourish, to be ''doing well ". The basics of thriving are easy to observe in nature when seeds release thier green shoots upwards through the soil. Like flowering plants , we are thriving when we are:
Growing - Do you have the opportunity to keep developing your professional skills? Is there enough variety in your package of daily tasks. Do you get ''stretch'' assignments? To what extent are you able to align your personal ambitions with your role and responsibilities at work?
Healthy - Do you get enough sleep ? Do you have time to eat breakfast and lunch at a relaxed pace, away from your desk ? Do you keep physically fit? Do you take a break, even a short one, to leave your desk and go outside for some fresh air, once or twice daily?
Attractive - Do your colleagues enjoy being with you and working with you? Are you easily approachable? Do people feel appreciated by you? Do you take care of your appearance?
Have enough space - Just as plants choke and wither when they are too close together, we humans also need space in order to thrive. This could be physical space: the ergonomics of your desk and chair, your proximity to other colleagues, even the sense of space created by the amount of light and fresh air circulation in the room. And let's not forget mental space: the ability to work without constant interruptions, having a manageable workload and enough time for planning, creative problem-solving and developing new ideas.
Using these four cornerstones of thriving, you can already make an inventory about your own situation. To what degree are you already thriving ? Which areas need more attention from you? Which of these have you not even considered unti now ?
To be realistic, you are part of a bigger interdependent system, and you will often find yourself subjected to less than optimal conditions for thriving. This could be sitting in a stuffy airless meeting room, chairs crammed too close together around a table, being beseiged by a steady stream of interruptions at the office or at home, skipping visits to the gym because of project deadlines, etc. What's important is not maintaining a perfect thriving regimen, but knowing what you need in order to thrive, so at the first opportunity, you can do something about it.
Awareness of the basics is only part of the to thriving at the top. Because growth, health, attractiveness and a spatial comfort in the workplace cannot be cultivated without a fundamental sense of '' personal empowerment''.
Empowerment is simply the freedom to make choices.
It is your capacity to strike a positive balance between your own needs and the needs of your environment. It's absence, known as ''depowerment'' is most often what is lurking behind job dissatisfaction, low morale, undermining behavior and ultimately burn-out.
In my next blogpost I will go into more depth about the relationship between personal empowerment and ''Thriving at the Top."
Until then, I invite you to think about this:
What is one thing you can do today to promote your own ''thriving at the top"?
Author: Lisa Ross-Marcus is a leadership coach and intercultural consultant. Her primary focus is empowering women to lead in organizations or as founders of their own enterprises.