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Know What You Don't Know

March 10, 2022

Mark Hedinger

Mary and Sam just moved to a new place. Mary had a worried look on her face as she thought about going to her first day of work. Turning to her husband she said, “Sam, we have lived in a small town in this country for years! Now that we live in the city, I’m excited, but there is a problem. I don’t know how to dress for city life! Next week I’ll start working at the school but I’m not sure what is appropriate dress code.”

That conversation, as simple as it was, highlights one of the key elements of CultureBound training. If you are going to adjust well to life in an unfamiliar culture, you must become a self-directed learner of life patterns.

The first step is to identify what you need to know, but don’t yet know. In the example, Mary was very aware of what she did not know. She didn’t know how to dress for work in an urban center. What about other things? How can Mary grow in her ability to learn what she doesn’t know?

Four Ways to Identify What You Don’t Know

Let me suggest four ways to help you identify things you don’t know. These are the things you will need to learn!

1. Do a Mental Experiment

When Mary looked at the calendar and realized she would be starting a new job in a new place, she thought through all that would be needed for the new job. That was when the dress code came to mind. By doing a mental experiment or checklist, Mary understood that she didn’t know what to wear at her new job. She planned for her responsibilities and as she was doing so the unknown things became clear.

A mental trial run can be a great way to identify what needs to be learned.

Think about food in a new place. What foods do you not know how to cook or eat? Are there some celebration foods that you don’t understand? Maybe you don’t know the history or the best way to prepare the food.

Think about music. Do you understand the instruments that are played in any given place? Can you name the songs played in national or religious celebrations? Do you know the names of famous performers or composers?

Think about life patterns. Home repairs? Car repairs? Medical appointments? Government offices? As you go through these places in your mental exercise, be alert for the questions that arise that you don’t have answers for.

2. Watch for Repeated Dilemmas

Have you run into the same problem on several occasions? Maybe you find yourself unsure how to answer a common question, or you’re always confused by the same word or phrase. Do you find yourself repeatedly unsure of directions from one place to another?

A repeated problem points you toward something that you do not yet understand. Keeping track of issues that keep occurring can help you know what to focus on in learning.

3. Frustration

Closely related to that repeated cycle of uncertainty is the internal feeling of frustration. “Why do they always answer that way?” “I do not understand why the traffic is always so bad in the afternoon.” Frustration is a sign that you need to do more research into a particular issue you are having. There could be a very simple reason or answer that you just haven’t learned yet.

4. Critical and Judgmental Feelings

Another sign that you need to grow in your understanding is when you hear yourself voicing derogatory, judgmental opinions. “These people are always late!” “I can’t believe she acted that way.” As human beings, it is so easy for us to criticize actions that are different from our native culture. It is exactly those differences, however, that we need to learn! That critical spirit is easier to spot than you think.

Negativity points to a simple fact – your patterns of life are different than the patterns in your new home. Pay attention to the situations that make you want to criticize or judge, and put forward extra effort for learning in those areas. Your critical and judgmental reactions can ultimately have a great and positive impact IF you use them to point you to better understanding. Learning will reduce the criticism as it helps you adjust to life in your new home.

Being aware of what you need to know is not the end of the story. After you identify what you don’t know, you must learn it! Usually that means you will need to develop a plan for learning.

  • There are three key questions for the self-directed learner:

  • What don’t I know?

  • Can I learn it?

  • What plan will give me success in learning?

In Mary’s situation, she was able to identify that she needed to learn how to dress for professional life in her new urban setting. She then developed a plan for how to learn appropriate clothing styles. At the end of a few days, she had learned how to dress for urban life through a very pleasant and effective observational field trip. The key to it all is the simple ability to put into words what you need to learn. You need to know what you don’t know!

Mark Hedinger, DIS, is Executive Director of CultureBound. Mark and his family spent 12 years living and teaching in Mexico. Since then, he has taught in many international locations and leads culture training programs at CultureBound. With his Spanish language background, he serves in a multicultural church in Portland, Oregon.


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