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New Year: your ‘strange’ is their ‘normal’

Thursday January 08th, 2015

Already a week into the new year 2015, I was reflecting back on celebrations for the New Year. And I realized that we all have traditions on how to celebrate that evening and the next day, and that we quickly judge the traditions of others – when these are not like ours – as ‘strange’ or ‘exceptional’.

New Year Pic 3

Many of us associate New Year with rock concerts, late night parties, singing and dancing till deep in the night, etc. But that’s an association that has been built up over the years, and has become common to us. Since then, this is how you celebrate New Year. And anybody who celebrates differently is ‘strange’.

When you live in The Netherlands, you have learned to associate New Year with the ‘oudejaarsconference’; the comedian who summarizes the year in a sharp and often humorous way, but also with a tone of seriousness. A tradition that you don’t know when you grow up in Austria, Malaysia or New Zealand. Along the same line, Dutch people are familiar with public transport stopping on Dec 31st at 20 hrs, and continuing only when the New Year has already started. It’s something we don’t think about; it has always been like that. So we didn’t tell our French friends who had planned to celebrate New Year in Amsterdam and who wanted to take the bus. There was no bus. ‘Normal’ for us, ‘strange’ when you have grown up in a country where it’s common to have continuous free public transport on Dec 31st and Jan 1st all day (US, Canada).

One of the most well-known celebrations of New Year is the ‘ball-dropping event’ in New York Times Square: one minute before 12 a big crystal ball on top of One Times Square building is lowered down, until it reaches the bottom position exactly at midnight. A tradition that people in New York have grown up with since 1907.

The rituals and traditions seem strange when you have not grown up with them: in Italy for example New Year is welcomed with the ritual to wear red underwear. Strange. In Spain the New Year (Vispera de Año Nuevo) is welcomed by eating 12 grapes at every chime of a bell clock, and for every grape you eat you do one wish. A strange habit. In Russia, people believe that if the first vistor you get on January 1st is a man, it will be a good year (especially when it is a man: remember that Russia is a very masculine society). Very strange. And in Switzerland, drops of whipped cream (‘slagroom’) are dropped on the floors and should stay there, which is a symbol of a rich year to come. Strange, when you do not grow up in Italy, Spain, Russia or Switzerland.

New Year Pic 1

Who says that New Year needs to be celebrated on Dec 31st at midnight? Multiple countries, cultures and religions celebrate a different kind of new year. In Thailand the Buddhist celebration of the new year is important: Songkran. This 3-day festival is all about water. People throw water at each other, and huge Buddha statues spray water over by-passers. The habit is to simultaneously tie strings around the wrist of other people you respect. These strings are supposed to stay there until they fall off. ‘Normal’ or ‘strange’?

The other famous example is Chinese New Year, the starting day of what the Chinese call ‘Spring Festival’ is determined by the lunar month in the Chinese calendar. This year’s Chinese New Year celebration starts February 19, and marks the start of the year of the sheep. And where New Year in our part of the world is about parties, (individual) resolutions for the new year and drinking champagne, the Chinese celebrations are different in every possible way. Here, you will not hear people about resolutions they have for themselves in the new year: collectivistic values bring that people don’t express their personal desires strongly, as they will be focused much more on what occupies the in-group to which they belong (family). Long standing traditions accompany the Chinese New Year celebration: fireworks are used to awake the dragon, people carry lanterns to bring light to the days and it is custom to dress in new clothes to welcome the new year. ‘Common’, not strange.

Different traditions in different times. We could elaborate further on the Vietnamese, where the new year starts early February. Or the Scottish, who celebrate Hogmanay with the “first-footing” tradition. Or the people of Maroc, where all is centered around the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year.

An excellent overview of the New Year traditions in many countries of the world is found at Wikipedia. When going through that list, you suddenly realize that the traditions you knew as a child you find ‘normal’, while you (dis)qualify all these other traditions that you didn’t know as ‘weird’.

It’s the same at work, when you work in a virtual team and you cooperate with people from other cultures. Which e-mail and phone conference habits you find ‘normal’ and which way is ‘weird’ is determined by what you have learned from others. And qualifying your working behaviors as ‘normal’ while qualifying those of others as ‘weird’ is a distorted way to look at the world. It’s just different.

New Year Pic 2

Think about it next time you are in a phone conference with professionals from Austria, Finland, Saudi Arabia or France: understand the world from their point of view first (their ‘normal’, your ‘strange’) before you make judgements about what they should do. First understand, and only then start to influence.

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