Another year, more experiences, new learnings… and yet, some cultural myths are still prevalent in our thinking, and stop us from making the best out of our international teams, work and life. It’s time to bust them once and for all!
Here are ten most common myths I hear from people about working across cultures.
Myth #1 – When you’ve lived in one country majority of your life, you won’t benefit from learning about intercultural communications.
Although it might seem like everyone is travelling, living and working abroad these days, this actually is not true.
Many people have never been abroad or haven’t yet had so many opportunities to work with people from different cultures. I once read an article that ~25% of Brits have never been abroad. And that is a country that generally has high travel rates, so imagine what this percentage might look like in other parts of the world!
There are increasing numbers of people doing business internationally, or providing remote services to people based abroad. It’s therefore worth putting the effort in learning about intercultural communications to be successful. Regardless of whether you’ve lived in one place your whole life or not. There is just too high of a chance that you will encounter cultural diversity in one way or another.
Invest in increasing your self-awareness and effectiveness in working across cultures to become a better leader!
Myth #2 – When we talk about intercultural interactions, everything can be attributed to cultural differences.
Of course we can’t attribute everything to cultural differences. Not everyone is your ‘average German’ or ‘average American’. Learning about cultural dimensions and cultural values is extremely important and very helpful in getting your head around intercultural communications. But it’s not like you can stop there. Human beings are so much more complicated than just the environment they are brought up in.
Cultural intelligence (CQ) doesn’t exist in separation. You still need all the other leadership skills, you still need to work on the emotional intelligence. These will help you get to know the people you work with and make sure you understand their particular challenges. Knowing about cultural dimensions will definitely give you a good start to your conversations on diversity and cross-cultural effectiveness.
Myth #3 – If someone has high emotional intelligence (EQ), they also have high cultural intelligence (CQ).
High EQ does not necessarily equal high CQ. As Cultural Intelligence Center defines it, emotional intelligence is defined by the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goals.
And it is indeed a great skill to have.
Problem is, the fact that it works in the environment you are familiar with, does not mean you will be equally fluent in recognizing the emotions or behaviours in a different cultural context.
Giggles may mean laughter in one culture and embarrassment in another.
Some individuals have been socialised to express anger by yelling while others stay silent (at least on the outside).
Public affirmations may be encouraging in one context and humiliating in another.
That is why learning about cultural dimensions, culturally-affected behaviours and research is so important. CQ picks up where EQ leaves off. But you have to start with understanding the emotions first, there is no way to skip that step.
Myth #4 – Knowledge about various cultures and how they differ is enough to be more culturally intelligent and efficient in working across cultures.
knowledge about various cultures is great and definitely supportive of growing
and developing cultural intelligence – it is not sufficient.
Knowledge is just one of the four CQ capabilities. You need to work on all of them to make sure you practice the skills necessary to working effectively in an international environment.
It’s about a deeper knowledge of your own values which may show in the form of unexpected emotions if you didn’t know they were so important to you. It’s planning for intercultural encounters so that you can pay close attention in the moment and adjust accordingly. And it’s putting yourself out there, trying different methods and approaches, to broaden your skills portfolio and ensure you can be successful in any environment, even one that is not naturally close to your cultural background.
Myth #5 – Technical competence and being a specialist in a given field is sufficient for an international success.
Very often, companies decide to give assignments abroad to employees who are specialists in a given topic. Those people are ‘sent’ to the new locations primarily due to their expertise. I’m sure there are times where this might go well and be sufficient. But so much more often the technical expertise itself is not sufficient to complete a successful project abroad.
In many cases the misunderstandings, inefficiencies or conflicts will likely not even be related to the topic of the project you’re tackling! Rather, it would be due to the differences in working styles, in perspectives or in management expectations, and what a good leadership means. Not even to mention the adaptation of not just the assignee but also their family.
You may know all about certain IT systems, marketing tools or accounting. But if you go out of this familiar context without understanding the values and perspectives of your co-workers in the new location – it’s a slippery slope.
Myth #6 – Travelling to many places around the world automatically increases cultural intelligence.
Many people admire the world travellers who keep going to new places every week, post fabulous pictures from the food markets or beaches. There are many who claim to have visited all countries in the world.
Does that automatically mean that they are more culturally intelligent? If you don’t have that much opportunity to travel, does it mean that you’re out of chances to be culturally competent? Short answer is: NO.
Sure, they might have seen a lot and met many new people, maybe even some locals. But the sole fact that they have been in a given place (often for a short period of time only) does not automatically mean that they have gained a better understanding of the culture and skills necessary to effectively work with the locals. They might have found out about cultural artefacts and history through sightseeing, or have spent their time in the offices and five-star hotels, but have not necessarily improved the cultural competence if this learning was not approached mindfully with an active reflection.
Myth #7 – The world is getting smaller as people travel more and more, so the cultures no longer matter that much.
They actually matter more than ever!
>> How many times you went abroad and found yourself saying “That’s so strange!”?
>> How many times have you worked with someone based in another country and saying “I just don’t understand, why don’t they get it, I thought I was clear enough!”, or worse “They’re so incompetent…”
>> How many times have you met someone from a different culture in the country you live in day to day?
Exactly. Probably many times. Because yes, we do travel more than ever. More people have the opportunity to see what things look like on the other side of the world, or even as close as on the other side of their country’s border. We have the chance to see all the differences visible at first hand and we see them. BUT: cultures evolve slower than we think. Cultures are group beliefs and behaviours which cannot be wiped out so easily by just the global companies entering local markets and people travelling more.
Myth #8 – Management is management. Regardless of where you are in the world the same techniques and principles can be applied.
After all we all want our managers to be good communicators, trustworthy and to respect their team members. But is this achieved in the same ways around the world?
There are billions of people in the world, with their own personalities, histories, environments they grew up and lived in, with their own passions, relationships and views. As much as it may be easy to say that you always need to consider people individually and after all if you’re good with people and are a good manager where you are now, you will also be a good ‘People person’ abroad. Yeah, it may be true.
But it may also turn out that how people define ‘trustworthy’ may differ. Or how they want to be treated in order to say you are a ‘good manager’ – may differ.
Although we are all different, we have to accept the fact that culture does influence us and growing up in certain parts of the world means that on average (statistically) we would be leaning towards one behaviour preference more than the other. Years of cross-cultural research can help us prepare for potential challenges and help us understand various leadership styles which exist around the world.
The same behaviour may be interpreted completely differently by your teams. For example, in more egalitarian cultures (eg. Sweden, Denmark, Australia) a good manager may be the one who involves people in the conversations, in decision-making, into discussions about upcoming changes.
Identical behaviour, of asking the team members who are lower in the hierarchy about their opinions, may be perceived as weak in more hierarchical cultures (eg. Japan, China, Russia, France). In those cultures you may see more tendency to expect managers to be able to take responsibility and make decisions for their teams (“That’s why they’re managers, no? If I would be the one to make decisions, then I could be one!”).
Myth #9 – We are all humans after all – we want the same things and strive to achieve them in the same ways.
I will agree with the part that we are all humans. But otherwise, do we really want the same things? On the high level, perhaps yes. You know, happiness, success and all that. But does happiness look the same way for everyone? Does success mean the same thing for everyone? Do we go and work towards those in the same way? Are we motivated to achieve those by the same factors?
It turns out that in the international setting, the common sense is not always that common. It’s important to try to pay closer attention as to what feels obvious to you, but may not be so obvious to others. To start with, think about what “a good manager”, “professional behaviour”, “respect” or “trust” mean to you. Then ask your friends and colleagues what it means for them and see what happens.
Myth #10 – There are so many regional differences, people differ on the individual level, so it’s not worth learning about cultures – everyone is different.
It is true. Everyone is different, has their own personality, hobbies, and a particular combination of life experiences. But who we are is not just our personality and preferences!
The society in which we grow up, as well as the job we do and friends we surround ourselves with, influence how we view the world – what we consider right or wrong, normal or not normal, common sense or weird. The fact that there are differences between people on the individual level does not mean that expanding your cultural knowledge and building your cultural competence are redundant.
They can help you make sense of those differences and help you be more effective when entering new cultures frequently.
The research is quite consistent and shows that despite of variations within a given society, there are differences in how people perceive the world on a more regional/societal level. Use that knowledge and research to ease yourself into the unknown new situations, but don’t take it in absolute (true-for-all vs not-true) values. Not every Polish person will be the same. Not every IT professional will be the same. But there are some trends that show up for these groups in academic studies, which you can use to be prepared for various scenarios.