Culture lessons from Zoom

Like a lot of people, I have been living my life via Zoom. I’ve had the privilege of working in multiple international teams, across different contexts and Zoom meetings seem to provide a great way to observe some of these cultural differences. Zoom meetings can be difficult at the best of times, especially as a lot of the social behaviours we rely on in different settings are not available to us. Also, because everyone is being watched all the time (if in gallery view), you seem to be able to observe a lot more at once. This makes cultural differences seem even more apparent.

A part of it is the newness of frequent Zoom calls. One thing I have learnt is that no matter how long you have been in a culture, is that you will never understand all of it. New contexts often have a totally different set of rules. As frequent Zoom calls are a relatively new social phenomenon, we’re still creating Zoom protocols in our own cultural context, let alone working out the others. Also, as behaviour is mostly dictated by our internalised cultural values, these work their way out fairly intuitively in different situations. However, if it is not your own culture, you will have to go through a process of observing how different cultures do it. (You can make some guesses, but there will always be surprises!)

Also (and this is the really tricky part of working cross-culturally), if you are unaware of a particular behaviour, you may not even notice it happening. This means that you might be blissfully unaware of how your behaviour is going against what everyone else is doing.

It’d be interesting to do a study (or, if I’m honest, briefly read the conclusion of one as I don’t have to for that) that looks into these particular behaviours. However, from what I have observed, it seems that culture may affect the following aspects of a zoom call:

  • When you join. Does the meeting start before, dead on time or after? When
  • How you enter. Do you speak straightaway to reassure the host of your arrival or do you wait to avoid interrupting conversations? Do you have your camera on straight away or do you wait until you know who has already entered the call?
  • The role of the host at the start. Do you say hello to everyone as they enter? Do you wait until everyone has arrived to speak?
  • Muting your mic. Do you put your microphone on mute so that you don’t distract or interrupt others? Do you use the unmuting of the microphone to indicate that you want to speak? Do you keep your microphone on so you can interact more naturally and conversationally?
  • Pausing to answer. Do you wait to see if others unmute their mic or indicate in another way they want to speak or do you answer straightaway to avoid awkwardness?
  • Body language. Do you use body language within Zoom calls? What body language do you use and what does it indicate?
  • Leaving a call. Do you say goodbye? Who do you say goodbye to and how many times? Or do you just leave as soon as it ends?
  • Offering technical advice. Are you willing to suggest how to solve technical problems in the Zoom call? Do you remind people to mute/unmute?

Now, obviously, some of this will be personality and some of this will be based on how proficient people are on Zoom.

Understanding Brits on Zoom

I’m only an expert on British culture, so I don’t want to assume things about other cultures and get it wrong. It may have been wiser to say this was “English” culture as Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England have subtle but important differences. Also, these are generalisations, so individuals may do all of these or some (and sometimes none). Another good thing to remember, is that native English speakers from different cultures may not share your culture. The cultures of the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand can be vastly different, for example.

However, here are some things that Brits will have a tendency to do:

  • Arrive between two minutes or two minutes after the time. They want to be punctual and not keep people waiting. However, they may not feel comfortable joining on their own, so may try be acceptably late. An alternative option is that they may arrive early but not turn on their mic or video straightaway. It means “I’m here and ready, but don’t feel the need to talk to me.”
  • They will not announce their arrival. They will wait until they know how many people are there and whether there are conversations going on already. They will wait for a break in conversation before talking to avoid interrupting others.
  • They will usually mute their mic. They don’t want to interrupt others or distract the call with things going on around them. Also, you can indicate you want to speak next by turning on your mic. It get’s a little frustrating if people don’t notice this and jump in and cut the conversation queue. Also, those who don’t mute their mics may make Brits a bit stressed as we can’t tell if they want to speak or not.
  • Body language is still important for Brits. We will usually pause before answering a question to the group to watch who wants to speak. We will look for unmuted mics, people sitting up or leaning forward to show they want to speak. Give Brits a chance to go through this process, because sometimes they might not get a chance to talk at all.
  • We will say a few goodbyes and thank yous. We will probably not say goodbye to individuals but to the group. We will then leave. Sometimes, in very large meetings, we will leave without even announcing it.

This is because of our values of politeness, being fair, not causing a fuss and being private. These will influence how we do Zoom. Other cultures will have different values and they will do it differently. Therefore, openness, equality, spontaneity, hospitality and others might have a role to play. So remember, if they do it differently, they are not being rude or doing it wrong. They are trying to practise other values which their culture says is the priority.

  • If you are a Brit, do you agree with these?
  • How do people from your culture use Zoom?

What do you find hardest about Cambodian culture?

When talk about culture neither is wrong, right, better or worse. Culture gives us a set of tools to easily and sometimes automatically negotiate social situations, able to make quick judgements and accurate predictions, bypass long-winded communications because of an assumed understanding of the process and expectations.

However, when dealing with other cultures these tools are often robbed away, and this is what can cause stress and anxiety.

For me, there are a few things that cause me stress. First, it is the lack of planning. Things often happen seemingly spontaneously and without a huge amount of forewarning. There is an economic aspect to this; things happen when you can afford them. There was one time Vitou phoned me to ask if I was free. I told him I was, so he told me to pack clothes for three days as we were visiting his relatives.

British culture usually revolves around well-planned and confirmed events. This is also true of my school culture, it being an international school. Many social events among my expat friends are planned in advance s as well. I try to have one foot firmly rooted in my surrounding Cambodian culture; whilst the other in my British or international expat culture. It seems that the former foot is doing the foxtrot beat of slow, slow, quick, quick (no planning or activity until a rush at the last minute) while the latter leg is doing the quick, quick, slow of the polka (organise everything at first, then ease into the event later). With each foot moving to a different beat, it can make life somewhat complex.

I’ve learnt to prepare for this Cambodian pace by leaving my schedule free. However, this means often saying no to things I would otherwise go to due to the possibility something else might happen. Often, when people ask “do you have plans for the holidays” the answer is no, but in reality I know some plan will probably suddenly materialise. Generally, I cope quite well.

However, I don’t cope well when I’m stressed. If I’m already busy and my schedule is already packed or if some significant event is coming up, the thought that something might suddenly crop up our plans might change make me very anxious. I cope with stress by planning. I will plan things to the last detail and I need to know some days in advance how things will work out. This helps me feel in control of the situation. However, as Cambodians don’t plan, they inadvertently make situations worse for me.

As I gradually get more involved in Khmer life and my priorities move in that direction, hopefully scheduling conflicts and time of stress will reduce.

Another strong value in British culture is privacy and personal space. In Cambodia, especially as often many people live together sharing bedrooms and even beds, this it’s not often a priority. Vitou is very aware and helpful, and will often ensure my privacy is maintained at home. However, there are times when this cultural conflict can’t be escaped. There is one example that sticks clearly in my mind. I had just been shopping at Aeon Mall, of course. I had the day off as a school holiday but also forget it happened to be a Cambodian national holiday too. Therefore, Aeon Mall was exceptionally crowded. Because of this, shopping had been tiring and stressful. My capacity to deal with cultural conflicts was vastly diminished.

I left Aeon Mall, glad to be escaping, and at the exit I bumped into some Cambodian acquaintances. They literally pounced on my trolley and started peering into my bag, cataloguing everything I had bought and announcing it to the group. I can’t imagine that happening in England. Even if my parents had been shopping for anything other than the weekly groceries, I wouldn’t open their shopping bags to have a look.

One time in Siem Reap, I went out for the evening to get food. There was a group of tuk tuk driver that would wait on the corner of the road for customers, so I walked up and asked them to drop me off at Pub Street, where the restaurant was (I was friends with one of the waiters there). The next day, I went to the shop just opposite where I lived, and the shopkeeper, who I also had conversations with regularly, asked if I enjoyed Pub Street the night before. The whole neighbourhood knows your comings and goings, which makes me very careful on the reputation I try to make for myself in my borey.

Another area where my idea of privacy is often invaded surrounds prices of things. In UK, you would rarely directly ask the price of something. In Cambodia, it happens a lot. People ask about clothes, motorbikes, rent, everything. To a British person, that’s personal information. Here, it’s acceptable public knowledge. The next stage can be a bit annoying, when they evaluate whether you got a good price or not. It’s not so bad if they think it’s a good price. To be told it’s too expensive comes across as rude. (That’s okay to do before the point of purchase; it’s of no use after and seems to only serve to undermine the person who bought it.)

If I get asked the price of something, I will usually say that I can’t remember. That usually stops the conversation in its tracks.

I think the reason that this happens is that Cambodia is far more group orientated. Therefore things happen together, so privacy gets put aside as a result. Things happen together, you live in close proximity to each other, communities have the proverbial grape vine running down each street, so naturally your business becomes everyone else’s business.

This might seem like a bit of a rant, but it isn’t. I know I’m extremely blessed to be here. If my main gripes are that people invite me to things (how very dare they) a bit last minute, or they show an interest in this stranger that has landed in among them or they are asking questions a quick google search could probably answer about prices, then I don’t have a lot to complain about. I love so much about Cambodian culture and the people here. I’m also glad for the opportunity to put a mirror up against my own values and beliefs and examine where they come from or why they’re like that. So, come to Cambodia; just expect things to be last minute and for everyone to be very curious about you.

Moving abroad skills/preparedness audit

Life in Cambodia can be wildly different to life in the UK. There are different routines, considerations and skills needed in order to survive. There is so much I have learnt to do and there are also many skills I know I’m lacking. If I had the opportunity to do more research, receive more training or practise some skills before I came it may could have made quite a bit of difference and I wouldn’t feel quite at a loss at some points. These just cover the basics; I will probably write another one about cultural integration and awareness. Also, if you enjoy this post but haven’t read my A Million Questions post about learning about a new country, you might find that interesting too.

Health

  • Are your vaccines up-to-date?
  • Do you know your blood type?
  • Do you know the locations of the nearest/best hospitals where you will be living?
  • Have you checked whether you can get hold of any medication you need?
  • Have you researched potential threats to health (e.g. malaria, dengue, Zika virus, parasites)?
  • Do you know how to prevent mosquito bites, insect bites and other local risks to health?
  • What foods are safe to eat and what should be avoided? (This varies from place to place, so the blanket advice for travellers may not be applicable. For example, ice is usually fine in Cambodia!)
  • How may the change in diet or climate impact your health?
  • Have you learnt how to adjust to a different climate?
  • Have you made plans in the case of emergency medical care? Does your family know your plans?

Transport

  • What are the main types of transport in the country you are moving to?
  • Is it the same or different to what you are used to?
  • Would it be worth getting lessons before you leave? (I would have loved to have motorbike lessons before I left; I completely feel as if I’m making it all up.)
  • Do you know basic vehicle maintenance?
  • Do you know about different types, brands or models of that vehicle?
  • What public transport is available in the country?
  • What conditions will you travel in when you take public transport? How might you need to prepare for this?

Clothing

  • What clothing do you need for different seasons?
  • What clothing is available in the country? What will you need to bring more of? (For me – vests, socks and shoes)
  • What are locals’ attitudes towards different types of clothing choice? What image are you trying to convey? How do the clothes you wear convey this?
  • What clothing will be comfortable or practical for different reasons?
  • How will you keep your clothes clean?
  • Do you know how to hand wash clothes?
  • What type of clothes will you have to wear at work? What would be good to wear when out and about?
  • Can you sew?

Food

  • What are the main components of that country’s cuisine?
  • Do you know how to eat it? (For instance, I still struggle to eat fish and prawns because I didn’t eat it a lot at home.)
  • What types of fruit and vegetables are there? Do you know how to eat, prepare and cook them? (For instance, can you cut up a mango?)
  • What type of food and ingredients will be available where you are living?
  • Can you cook some simple meals just on a stove?
  • Do you know how to wash vegetables and meats in an effective and hygienic manner? (Yes, I know that probably back at home you are told not to wash meats. That advice might not apply so much where you are.)
  • Do you know how to avoid foods that you are allergic too?
  • Do you know what substitutions for different ingredients you use often can be used?

Language learning

  • Do you know which languages are used in the country and where you will be living?
  • Do you have a basic idea of language families and their features?
  • Do you know your learning style?
  • Are you aware of the International Phonetic Alphabet and its usage?
  • Are you familiar with the phonemes of your target language?
  • Have you researched language learning techniques?
  • Do you know what resources are available for your target language?
  • Do you know the pros and cons of the different resources (for example is the resource somewhat old-fashioned so now a bit offensive? Yes, FSI courses, I’m looking at you.)

Cultural adjustment

  • Have you researched some of the dos and don’ts of the culture?
  • Are you aware of culture shock, what it is and what it looks like? Have you researched reverse culture-shock?
  • Have you researched your own culture so you are aware of some of the potential pressure points? (Privacy and personal space is a large pressure point for me.)
  • Have you found out what cultures you might be working with? Have you researched them? (You might be working in an international setting. I find more extrovert and say-what-you-mean cultures more difficult than Khmer ones most the time.)

Back at home

  • Have you planned how you will stay in touch with those back at home?
  • Have you researched what methods of communication there are available?
  • Have you spoken to others about how they should communicate with you?
  • Have you scheduled regular, committed time to communicate with various people?
  • Have you considered how you will communicate with younger family members? (I’ve found regular Skype calls with little people really hard to navigate.)
  • How will you negotiate import events like Christmas? Have you reflected on how this might affect you?

Yourself

  • Have you taken time to think about how you as a person might affect your experience?
    • What do you enjoy doing in your home country?
    • What activities might be available in your new country?
    • How do you respond to stress?
    • What self-care techniques work for you?
    • What is your personality type? What Enneagram type are you? What does it say about you?
    • What are your reasons for going?
    • What do you hope to achieve?
    • How do you cope with frustrations and disappointments?
    • What bad habits should you try to deal with before you leave?
    • Where might you need to be more flexible in your thinking or world-view?
    • What stereotypes or presumptions might you need to deal with before you leave?

This is a pretty long list. A lot of it could be done with a google search or by watching a few YouTube videos. Some you might need to reflect on for longer. You may want to discuss a few with others who have lived abroad, or close friends and loved ones. I hope this list helps someone and if it does, like or comment! If I failed to add something (because these are only based on my experiences), let me know too.