How to Build Connections across Cultures

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More than a Culinary Journey to the Caucasus

Cultural differences can stall team performance by impeding people’s ability to work effectively towards shared goals. The reason is the misconceptions and tension caused by focusing on differences. Workplace diversity experts agree that people from different cultures have more similarities than they realize. In today’s globalized marketplace, where increasingly more organizations procure, sell, market and employ across borders and cultures, we need the kinds of leaders who help people see the commonalities, embrace the differences and maximize performance by leveraging the two. Building connections across the differences goes beyond organizational needs and benefits communities at large.

Today, I would like to introduce a community leader who goes out of her way to bring people and cultures together. She creates opportunities for people to travel across the globe, share unique experiences and bond around one thing all humans have in common – the love for good food. An Azerbaijani-American award-winning author, blogger, tour planner, and my great friend Feride Buyuran has recently returned from 2 weeks of visiting Azerbaijan and Georgia with a group of American tourists.

 – How did the idea come to you? 

–   It all started with my food blog and book, called Pomegranates and Saffron: A Culinary Journey to Azerbaijan. My readers were asking if I would consider organizing a tour to Azerbaijan just as the book title suggested. One thing led to another and, being a spiritual person that I am, I took it as signs from the Universe. I sat down and developed a vision. In a day, the itinerary was planned out. Then the real work began: I reached out to friends and acquaintances from Azerbaijan and neighboring Georgia to find contacts who could help me bring my ideas alive. I announced about my tour within a month and people started signing up. I only took a small group of 7 to allow for close personal interactions.

–  What was the intention of this tour? 

–  The idea was to allow North Americans to immerse in a foreign culture, get familiarized with a new way of living and make connections. At the same time, I wanted to positively contribute to the lives of people back home, especially those living in remote locations. Anyone can take a city tour or visit major historical sites – both Azerbaijan and Georgia are rich with those! But you only learn so much from that. On my tour, aside from sightseeing, I wanted people to experience what life is like for everyday people living halfway around the world.

More often than visiting restaurants, we ate in the houses of the locals – sat around their family tables, got to know those who made the food, learned what customary significance each dish had in the local culture.  As a result, not only the tourists learned a lot, but the villagers themselves developed a deeper appreciation for their culinary traditions after seeing them through the eyes’ of the newcomers.

-I know quite a few North Americans who like to stick with “safe choices” while abroad. Where there any McDonald’s stops on your tour? 

– Ha-ha. We actually passed by Mc Donald’s, Hard Rock Café and KFC in Baku. Our tourists had grins on their faces seeing the familiar sights but showed no intention to go in. We had one vegetarian in our group and we always made sure she had plenty of options. Others ate absolutely everything that came our way – and that was great. When you are saying yes to new food, you are opening up to new ways of living. I was proud of everyone!

 – Often times corporate team building takes place over lunch events. Did you find that food still bonded people even if they didn’t speak each other’s languages? 

– Absolutely! Bonding over food was one of the highlights of my tour. Most villagers did not speak any English, I had to interpret. Knowing the language would have made things easier for both sides, but “breaking bread together” brought them so much closer. The jokes, the laughter, the positive vibes accompanied us everywhere we went!

 – I’d like to hear about broken stereotypes if you got to witness any.

– For one thing, whether we want it or not, generations of Americans have been raised on the Cold War propaganda and as a result, developed certain prejudices against the USSR. This full immersion tour became an eye-opener in that concern – among other things, the tourists learned about the true impact of WWII and the Stalin ’s regime on the Soviet people. Every family we met on our path, including my own, had someone they lost at the war or someone who endured exile – the old photos on the walls spoke volumes. The Americans were surprised to see Fallen Soldier memorials in every city and village we visited and discovered for themselves the notion of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. They learned a lot about the contributions of Baku to making the Victory happen.

– Were there any epiphanies while you were on the road? 

– For me personally, it was realizing just how diverse Azerbaijan is when it comes to its food traditions. I even came across a few new recipes for my next book.  For everyone else in my group it was the incredible ethnic and linguistic diversity of the peoples populating Azerbaijan, and their peaceful coexistence on the land they all love. The diversity did not end there either. We crossed the state border from Azerbaijan to Georgia and momentarily found ourselves stepping from the tea and carpet culture into the land of wine, with the luscious greenery of its vineyards and the splendor of its ancient churches and royal castles. This was only the tip of the iceberg! I am sure there are going to be a lot more “aha” moments in the future.

 -What was the biggest “out of the comfort zone” experience you can share? 

– There were a few instances when seeing the lifestyle in the remote areas made our tourists appreciate more the everyday conveniences of their own life back in the US. But the most adventurous thing we did was visiting the mountainous village of Khinalig (in the region of Quba) at 7,710 ft. above the sea level. The only way to get there was the way the locals did, so our group had to disperse into three beaten up 4-wheel-drive Ladas that survived all the way from the Soviet times! To my surprise, everyone thoroughly enjoyed this very bumpy ride!

 – Any cultural nuances the visitors wished they could adopt?   

– Everyone was impressed with the wholehearted receptions given to us at private homes. Most of those visits were prearranged, but in the village of Lahij someone suggested on the spot we visit an old house that had a lot of character and history. And so we did. My American visitors were shocked to see that the family residing in the house, not only allowed us to freely walk in from the streets, but also greeted us with a lot of warmth and excitement. They noted that this level of hospitality would be unheard of in the US.

– Would you say the tour lived up to its purpose and what can we expect next? 

– Overall, it did. There is always room for improvement and I will always be improving. Currently, I am working on new routes for my next tour, looking for connections in the world of arts and crafts, specific for each ethnic group represented in Azerbaijan. There are so many more places to explore, people to meet and great food to share!

– So, based on the lessons learned what is the #1 reason you recommend people choose full immersion tours?   

– I personally would love to be this kind of a tourist in another country. When you interact with the locals, make friends, sit down with them and share a meal, you learn what they are really like. These experiences help in bringing down the barriers of misconceptions. But best of all, they teach you about the main ingredient of all human relationships which to me is empathy. Empathy is what you take with you to every area of your life – personal and professional – in order to empower and to feel empowered.

To keep an eye on Feride’s upcoming events you can visit her website at https://azcookbook.com/tours/ Do you have your own stories of building connections despite the differences or any other travel epiphanies? Please share in the comments section below. We would love to hear from you!  

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10 Comments

  1. There are many people in our world that are trying to break down barriers and build connections. Thanks for sharing the story of one of them.

    1. Thank you for this comment Robin and you are most welcome! I’m so grateful that this kind of people exist and I believe they are the true leaders of our communities. Please feel free to talk to me or to get me in touch with someone you find remarkable in this concern and I’ll be happy to share their story as well.

  2. This so reminds me of my favourite quote by Mark Twain on travel. Here is how the full version goes:

    “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

    1. Thank you, Vanessa, for bringing up this excellent quote. It’s actually one of my all time favorites too. I have always been amazed at the precise and witty manner in which Mark Twain put these words of wisdom.

  3. It was an interesting week for me Natella as I was introduced as a new member to an already established work team where I was able to witness workplace diversity and relationships within the team that were already well established. I was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming they all were to my presence at the meeting as a visitor from the West Coast and my new position on the team. As a Caucasian Male, it’s hard for me to fully understand some of the challenges where skin color, ethnic background, accent, or other may change the way individuals are received but I’d like to comment today on what I saw and felt within this group. What I saw was a full variety of men and women with a range of different skin colors and accents. One of the great aspects of the company I work with is their progressive position regarding diversity. They not only look for the best talent regardless of visible differences but more importantly they look for culture fit. It was apparent when I looked around the room. Beyond physical differences I saw each new member of my team for what they really were…. Experts in many different technical fields, professionals in our work environment, world class leaders, and together, a unified team working towards a common goal. Embracing culture is what brings people together and in a work environment it’s an important ingredient in a team’s success.

  4. Hi Jason, thank you so much for sharing with us your amazing experiences! The theme of this week seems to be diversity and teamwork. But first things first, let me congratulate you for joining such a high-level team that seems to live by exceptional values – looking for best talent and for the cultural fit while diversifying skill sets and backgrounds of their experts. From what I know of you, this team sounds like a great place for you to be – to contribute to their success with your many talents and to learn and grow from the team’s world-class leadership. I am looking forward to hearing more from you on this topic in the future. And did I tell you, you sound to me like you have already graduated from commenting on this blog and are ready to start writing posts again 🙂

  5. In my opinion your friend is doing a great job organizing such interesting tours like this! It helps to build connections between different people and their cultures. It also breaks some of the existing stereotypes and prejudices against certain countries, cultures, nations as it happened to North-American tourists in Farida Buyuran’s story. Raised in the environment of anti-Soviet propaganda in and surrounded by the prejudice on the news they were in for a pleasant surprise to see the true situation in places they had visited.

  6. Your friend does a great job, Natella! Organizing such interesting tours to different places helps to build strong connection between people from different cultures. Also this integration of various cultures leads to break some stereotypes and prejudices against others as it happened in Farida Buyuran’s trip to Caucasian countries with her North-American tourists.

    1. Thank you for the comments Melissa and K! Learning about Feride’s tour makes me want to join a tour like that and get the full immersion experience into a culture that’s new to me!