What makes a global citizen? What makes you a global citizen?

Brigitte Opel

Brigitte Opel

Alumna from Class of 1995, Amsterdam

We tend to consider ourselves cosmopolitan if we cross a couple of borders each year and if we can say “Hello” in a few languages. We recognize landmarks in capital cities and know the airport codes CDG, JNB, DXB.

Yet, something tells us that there’s more to it. There’s got to be a distinct difference between a frequent traveler – for business or for pleasure – and a global citizen. So what makes us Thunderbird students & alumni think that we are Citizens of the World? 

One thing that I observe at every alumni gathering is the respectful curiosity about the Other. We see that everybody has a unique story and a unique perspective. We hear about foreign habits, customs, and traditions, and we select those that we take home and adopt as a cool story, lesson learned, or reason to celebrate life.  We listen without judgment because we know that there is no “normal” that is universally valid.

That is the secret to connecting with others and for creating meaningful relationships, including for business purposes. Building trust is the essence of interacting. Reflect what makes you trust others. Is that the same for everybody? Is it based on words or deeds?

What managers do is the same around the world. 
How they do it, depends on culture.
– Peter Drucker
 

There are many models to explain cultures and cultural differences, and they are very useful to make the point: There are differences, and they impact your life and your business, so you better acknowledge them.  

As consultant for intercultural communication, I advise organizations and professionals on their cross-cultural communication, international negotiation approaches, and diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies. I know that the values of your upbringing are often subconscious and stay with you for life. You can adjust your behaviour according to a situation, depending on the context of the situation and the culture. Like most Thunderbirds, I have lived and worked in different countries, and I have friends from around the globe. When I visit them, I can interact, mingle, and connect to people – enjoying the challenge of experiencing yet another culture. Yes, it’s a passion, not just a profession. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been grounded for the last year. No travel, no interaction around a foreign lunch table or negotiation between tea and karaoke. We exchange our information through email or phone, and all our conversations are through a screen. That changes the way we adapt our behaviour. Virtually, we hop from one meeting to another, from one cultural context to the next. Even if we had the time to prepare our minds between meetings, we miss the trigger to adjust to the different context: The heat, the smells, the traffic noise, the spices in our lunch. Without them, our sensors to be alert for cultural indicators aren’t switched on. How do we show interest and curiosity? Communication is mostly non-verbal, but virtual meetings are mostly verbal. How do we build trust over distance, over cultures when we miss the non-verbal clues? 

Empathetic leadership is considered the solution to strengthening virtual relationships. Make sure to take time to listen and relate to the other with the curiosity and open mind that makes us special and unique as Thunderbirds.

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