We are often faced with many questions when going somewhere new for the first time.
What are the people there like?
How should I behave so that they accept me and trust me?
What should I do to be successful in this new environment?
There is never one definite answer to any of those questions, regardless of whether you are visiting another city in the country you’re from, or going to the other side of the world. But there are three questions you can ask yourself before going, that will guide you to look for the right information and prepare for the challenges of this transition.
Many academics have been working to identify key cultural dimensions, which could help us paint a fairly good picture of an ‘average’ person who lives in a certain country. Obviously, this research is also a bit flawed. Especially in the light of various political changes and merges, as well as people simply travelling more and living across cultures – and therefore changing their personal preferences and values. We can’t definitively say that every single person in a country will fit into this academic research. But that is not its point.
The knowledge about the cultural dimensions, what they are, how they are defined, and self-awareness about which ones are closest to our hearts, are all super important when working across cultures. This knowledge can help you adapt more easily to the changing environments. By those environments, we may mean country cultures of course, but also company cultures (of various clients you might work with), local in-country cultures, or other subcultures (like various professional groups, eg. IT professionals, HR professionals etc.).
The key is to keep working on your self-awareness, and understanding own preferences and values. You are already one step ahead if you understand what is important to you and what are the behaviours and styles you naturally present when interacting with people you work with.
The next step is to compare these preferences with the culture you are visiting or will be working with, and understand similarities as well as potential pain points that might occur.
Tasks or relationships?
The first thing that is fairly easily noticed when starting to work with another culture is whether they go straight to business or rather start with spending some time on getting to know each other, building relationships, going out for dinners or drinks. This can be the first thing to identify when entering a new working culture.
Is this a task or relationship based culture?
Not everyone in that culture will have the same preference, but in a vast majority of cases after observing for a short while or reading a bit about the customs ahead of your travel, you will start to see some patterns. Let’s have a look at this dimension from two points of view.
If you come from a place (country, company, household – you name it), where efficiency is generally valued above building relationships, you might potentially find a relationship-based approach to making business extremely frustrating. Your preference might have been to go to that place, have a meeting, negotiate, agree on things, and go back home the following day.
Instead, you arrived, were invited to dinner, then to drinks, the next day people showed you around, helped you understand how things are done there, and only after what seems to you like aaaages, they started discussing business.
Now, there are two things you could have done. Either go with the flow, attend dinners, have fun, share personal stories, get to know each other, ie. go against what you would usually naturally do in your work environment, in order to adjust to the local preference and succeed in business. Or you could have gone straight to business (as it’s done where you’re from), possibly then leaving with no deal in hand and being perceived as rude or unfriendly.
That works both ways though. A person whose preference is to get to know people well before doing business with them, may struggle to go straight into business (well, possibly a short small-talk might also be involved in some locations).
In reality, probably the best and most comfortable option would be for both parties to adjust a little and land somewhere in the middle between jumping straight in and spending three days on getting to know each other. For example, in a task-based culture you could factor in some more time for introductions to make your guests feel more welcome, or drop one dinner in the relationship-based culture when welcoming guests from more direct cultures.
Confrontational or not?
Another thing that you can easily notice and gather when working in a certain culture, is whether people are expressing their opinions (be it neutral or disagreement) openly or rather wait to be asked and don’t express disagreement openly in a group.
If someone disagrees strongly with my idea, does that suggest they are disapproving of me or just the idea?
The above is a useful question to ask yourself to gather what your personal preference is, but also to help understand the reactions of people in the culture you’re entering.
If you are coming from an environment where it is acceptable to challenge ideas in a group, where it’s even rewarded and perceived as a sign of being knowledgeable and creative, then you might reconsider your approach when you go to less confrontational cultures. Those same behaviours might be perceived as rude, uncomfortable and might decrease the level of trust people have towards you.
In some countries, such as Japan for example, the notion of ‘losing face’ is still very present. If you were to challenge your boss’s idea in front of the whole team that could cause you trouble. Yes, of course, you might meet people who will forgive you because you are a foreigner and so on, but you will very likely still leave a sense of awkwardness and insult in that group.
An alternative you might consider is to wait for a break or till after the meeting and speak to the boss or client one on one, asking whether they would be open to hear another perspective, which came to your mind. If they are open, then you can present your alternative approach. However, be ready for a situation that they might not want to hear your solutions too.
Equally, if you come from a less confrontational culture and enter a new market which is far more direct, the knowledge about those preferences will be very helpful in adopting a non-judgmental perspective on the behaviours and comments of your more confrontational colleagues. You might also be expected to speak up voluntarily and express your opinions, in order to be perceived as a knowledgeable professional.
Risk-averse or risk-oriented?
The last thing that you can quickly gather when starting to work in a new team or environment, is whether people are afraid of taking risks or not.
This dimension is not explicitly included in many theories, but it is definitely something that you can easily see in the individuals you work with. You can think about it as a personal trait and see whether there is any pattern in an organisation or location you are working at.
In environments where there’s a preference for immediate results and short-term planning, the tolerance for risk is probably a bit higher. Just because if something doesn’t work out, you have the time to fix it with another approach. When you are coming up with a long-term vision or strategy, such approach would not necessarily work and a solid plan needs to be put in place. Equally however, when you’re planning long-term, there needs to be some space left for uncertainty, because you can’t expect to 100% know what the economy or politics would look like ten years from now.
When starting to work with people of a risk-averse preference, you might expect to spend some more time on creating alternative solutions, plan B, C and D. There might be more questions raised and a less of a let’s-go-ahead-and-see-what-happens approach.
Equally, when your preference is to avoid risks and try to prepare for any scenario before making a decision – when you enter an environment where this is not a norm, you might need to adjust and sometimes just let go. As hard as it can be (and oh, I do know that one for sure… :D). Though remember that no one bans you from creating alternative solutions in your head (just in case!).
Starting a project in a completely new culture and environment can definitely be daunting for some. Probably depends on your level of risk-aversion though, right? 🙂 But by observing those three types of behaviours listed above, you can very quickly gather some key descriptions of the work styles. This can then be helpful in making sense of the new setting you found yourself in, as well as improving your working relationships with your new colleagues.
Although it might seem that everyone is travelling, living and working abroad these days, this actually is not true. Many people have never been abroad or didn’t have so many opportunities to work with people from different cultures. I once even 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!
What does it tell us?
That in fact many people you are working with might not have the same experience as you do and only have one definition of what is normal – the one that they were growing up with. It’s therefore worth putting the effort in learning about intercultural communications, to increase your self-awareness, cultural knowledge and effectiveness of working across cultures.