I am British and have been married to a Brazilian lady for 25 years. I remember how we both had cultural surprises in trying to understand each other in the early days of our relationship. For example I thought she was not grateful for certain things, like a dinner out, because she did not say the words “thank you”. I had learnt that they were compulsory. Instead she would surprise me with a thoughtful gift as a way of expressing gratitude. Her way was more real and more thoughtful. Mine was automated, but nonetheless important in my culture.
That’s the risk in many cross-cultural exchanges. We can see the world through our own cultural “lenses” and make assumptions and judgments based on our own experience and education.
These differences are often thought of in terms of different national characteristics, but they can also apply wherever two or more people have different educations, experience, values, attitudes to time or authority, or different ways of using verbal or body language or physical proximity. So culture can, for example, also apply to the different subcultures in an organization or to regional or organizational differences in the same country.
How can we best manage these risks? How can we build bridges from one side of the cross-cultural divide to the other?
Whole books and studies, indeed lives, have been dedicated to this goal, both in the broadest sense and also between specific cultures. Leadership and management have also been widely studied across cultures.
Here we only have space to set out some of the most important fundamentals which will help you to grow your cross-cultural understanding and skills, before going into any specific management or leadership skill (for example planning, collaborating, delegating or controlling):
1) Understand how others see you and your own culture (as relevant, i.e. your department’s sub-culture, your corporate culture or your national culture). Start by getting an outside perspective on how you can be different. This opens your mind to then studying others and being more open and respectful to differences. Visualize, or even better, film, the culture in action. Listen to your film with and without sound. What do you hear and see? What adjectives come to mind to describe the culture?
2) Develop the best support resources you can. Who seems to cope best or has the most relevant experience? Observe and listen to how they deal with different situations. Who could mentor you and help with your own challenges or things you just don’t understand? What can you study to help you better understand? Is there a relevant text or course? What are the generally accepted behaviors and actions in terms of etiquette?
3) Develop your ability to delay judgment, actively listen and ask good open questions. Suspend your judgment on what is right or wrong. Challenge your own thinking – what assumptions are you making? Slow down, knowing that when you are learning a new culture speeding up and making quick judgments can lead you to make unnecessary mistakes. In other words, do your best to take off your normal “lenses” and imagine seeing things through neutral eyes.
4) Can you learn some of, or master, the others’ language (technical or national)? Coded in language are valuable roots and interpretations of values and ways of being and doing.
5) Cross check for understanding by asking respectful questions, perhaps coming at the same matter from different perspectives.
6) How can you best accelerate your learning in lower risk social or other learning environments outside of work or business? Can you make friends who are interested in your culture and can reciprocate sharing experiences and perspectives?
7) Be cautious in using humor as it can vary greatly across cultures. Even lower risk self-deprecating humor may be seen as showing a lack of self-esteem or other undesirable characteristic. Observe what kind of humor “works” positively.
8) Take a positive attitude. You can really grow yourself though cross-cultural experience. It can help you to be a better listener, a better communicator, a better “reader” of the unsaid and most of all help you understand yourself in new ways. Remember cultures are dynamic changing things with infinite variations possible. Even if something clashes with your values and really needs to change, respect where it actually is. Often it has come about through a long period of human interaction. Condemning it too quickly could shut down your compassion and learning and ultimately your ability to help it change for the better. Look for the positive.