ON any given day I interact with people from around the world. I attend meetings with colleagues from France, the Philippines and Bangladesh. I write emails to Japan and make Skype calls to friends in Chile. My neighbors are Greek and my boss is from Egypt. In this diverse but connected world I face the challenges of intercultural communications every day.
A powerful technique in cross-cultural interactions is empathy. Cultivating an empathetic feeling as we interact with friends, colleagues and strangers whose thinking and values differ from our own, helps to widen our perspective on the world. But trying to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings can also have a destabilizing effect on us. Through cross-cultural communication, it’s possible to become vulnerable and get lost in a medley of conflicting values, customs and rules. Empathy needs a force to balance it out.
Through my practice of yoga I have learned two concepts that have helped me make sense of what that balance means for everything in our lives, including intercultural communications. The Sanskrit terms for these concepts are Sthira and Sukha. Sthira translates into steadiness or groundedness, and Sukha translates into permeability or flexibility. Achieving balance between Sthira and Sukha will lead to more happiness, understanding and self-knowledge.
As I communicate with my diverse group of colleagues and friends, I strive for a balance between Sthira and Sukha, in other words, a balance between groundedness and flexibility. Being grounded in my own culture means having confidence in my moral values and perspectives. I’m able to articulate why I enjoy keeping certain customs. I recognize my preference for proximity with strangers, and I am aware of my hand gestures and language patterns as I speak. Knowing yourself well provides a sense of groundedness; however,while critical, it is only one side of the equation. Flexibility is also essential. It means having an open mind as I communicate cross-culturally. I keep my perspective fresh as I listen to and watch people from other cultures, always ready to take in whatever I perceive without jumping to conclusions. Flexibility helps me to be adaptive to new things, new places, new people, and to differences on the whole. Empathy is part of being flexible; I often use it to understand my own agitations caused by miscommunication or the clash of perspectives. In my experience, it is best when flexibility and groundedness balance each other out.
When Sthira and Sukha are out of balance, trouble and miscommunication often follow. While it’s good to be grounded in my own culture’s values and customs, to know who I am and what I believe in, too much groundedness results in close-mindedness. A rigid person is stiff and inflexible, and has a narrow perspective. On the other hand, too much flexibility
makes us appear wishy-washy. We might come across as someone who changes their mind every two seconds and can never have an opinion of their own. An over-flexible person doesn’t have strong support and a clear sense of personality.
In a beautiful yoga pose, I stand firm with my feet on the ground balanced out by reaching up and above, opening my arms and chest toward the sky. I use the same principles for balance when seeking happiness in other aspects of my life.
In intercultural communications, seeking a balance between Sthira and Sukha is crucial. We must also try to establish this balance between steadiness and ease; commitment and freedom; and stability and creativity in personal relationships, but also in our jobs and careers, business, health, finance, parenting and education. I encourage readers to think about the particulars of your own lives and identify the tensions between
Sthira and Sukha and aim to bring them more into balance every day. tj
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