Working across cultures – what I’ve learned

Having spent a good part of my life working across cultures, I thought I would try and summarize some of the lessons I’ve learned.

First, I should say that I am profoundly grateful for the opportunities my work has given me to experience and engage with other ways of seeing, thinking, and acting in the world.  It has been a profound, humbling, and inspiring journey.

Others can add to the list below, and I encourage them to do so.  We work in an increasingly technology-driven workplace, but the ease of connecting digitally doesn’t mean greater ease in communicating across cultures.  Our world is still a tapestry threaded with cultural differences.

Accept some discomfort as a given: Working across cultures is likely to increase levels of ambiguity and uncertainty.  If you are always fighting against the discomfort, you will block-out what the discomfort is telling you and, therefore, lose important insights about yourself and others.

Always practice cultural due diligence: Use whatever cultural tools you can find to help you identify cultural gaps between yourself and those you will be working with. There are multiple models of cultural differences in the literature (you can look at the chapter on Cultural Intelligence in my book Where in the World is My Team? for one such model).

Always be open to new ideas and learning: We are human beings and often resist ideas that we find counterintuitive.  Stay alert to those inner feelings and thoughts that indicate you are closing your mental gates, e.g. frustration, anger, disapproval.

Be curious about others: Managers I meet in other countries complain that some Westerners show little interest in the culture they are visiting.  This can appear as disrespectful and dismissive (in effect communicating that the host’s culture has nothing of value to offer the visitor). Ask specific and open-ended questions, listen, observe, and demonstrate your desire to learn.

Be flexible: Knowing what differences you might expect is wise.  Practice flexing between your own and other styles, e.g. between direct and indirect communication, formal and informal interactions. Locked into one style will not serve you well in the borderless workplace.  What you prepare for and what you might encounter, however, are two different things.  The map is not the territory so always be ready to adjust in real time.

Be self-aware: When we start working across cultures, we are often hungry to learn.  It’s intellectually fascinating!  Never lose that curiosity, but don’t neglect self-knowledge.  We are all shaped by our own cultural backgrounds, and a significant factor in developing cultural intelligence is knowing what we are adapting from as well as what you are adapting to.

Be sensitive, but not overly sensitive: It’s important to be respectful and sensitive to the values and norms of others.  What we should avoid, however, is being too fearful of making a cultural faux pas. No matter how experienced we are, we’re going to make mistakes.  In my experience, most people are very forgiving if they believe you are sincere in trying to understand and adjust.

Challenge your assumptions: We can hang onto assumptions even when the evidence is telling us something different. Also we tend not to seek contrary information once an assumption has been made.  One assumption I find often in virtual teams is that because a distant colleague speaks the ‘official’ language of the team fluently, he or she must be culturally similar.  Typically, you only have a narrow window into that person’s life.

Challenge ‘our way is the right way’ thinking: Often accompanied by feelings of superiority this type of thinking destroys communication and damages relationships.  The ‘right way’ is one that has been negotiated, and has mutual ownership and commitment.

Identify similarities to build on: While it is wrong to assume similarities too quickly, it is important to search for them. Similarities give you some common ground as a starting point for building relationships and working together.  A similarity doesn’t have to be something as tangible as a behavior or approach; it can be a shared attribute like curiosity.

Give respect to everyone: Giving respect doesn’t mean we must like or agree with another’s point of view or their actions. You can respectfully disagree (and even disapprove) without raising the interpersonal temperature to unmanageable heights.  Showing respect across cultures begins with learning about others, deep listening, and making small adaptations.

Interact with people, not stereotypes: Crude generalizations about groups – whether favorable or unfavorable – distort and deceive.  You don’t work with cultural generalizations, but with individuals who are unique in their own ways.

Seek cultural knowledge, but use cautiously: The Internet is full of sometimes contradictory cultural dos and don’ts.  If you apply the advice in a careless and unthinking manner, you may cause more harm than good.  Gather information about a culture, but also try to find someone with recent experience in a context similar to the one you will find yourself in.  Don’t become overwhelmed.  Ask them for the five most things you should know or do.

Set a comfortable pace: Take more breaks when communicating across cultures. Some people might be communicating in second or third languages which can take considerable effort. Sometimes there is the added stress of having to listen intently to a difficult accent over an extended period of time.

Slow down your reactions: Beware of fast stimulus-response reactions and judgments.  Gather more information.  Wait, ask questions, listen, and observe.  Your goal should be to interpret accurately and respond calmly.  Use emotional intelligence.

Watch your language: It is always good to keep it simple and avoid idioms and unnecessary jargon. Additionally, familiar words can confuse.  The same word can mean different things in different languages (they are called ‘false friends’).  Pay very close attention to the context in which something is said, and any discrepancies in expectations following the use of a word or phrase.

Finally, it helps to have a good sense of humor to maintain balance and perspective, and a lightness of touch.  Don’t leave home without it!

About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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