Right. You have nailed this new assignment, a job abroad or a place in an international team. You will be working with so many people from different cultures now! Oh gosh, that means you have to learn about all the cultures in the world now! Or, does it really?
Is this even possible to be fluent in all the cultures in the world? Likely not, but even if it were possible, it wouldn’t be an easy task at all. With the different ways that all the cultures are nuanced, the key is not to try and learn about everything, but rather to understand what are the most crucial information you need to find out and which of those might influence your current context.
Depending on your particular context, you might need to put more focus on different aspects of the culture knowledge. Let’s take a look at four categories of information you might want to explore.
Economy and legalities
When moving to a new country or starting work with people from specific country, it might be a good idea to look into their economic systems and current political and social situation. There are times where it might come useful to have an opinion (or lack of it!) on a given hot topic that is on the covers of all the newspapers. It can help you avoid embarrassment or inappropriate comments as well as build relationships with your colleagues.
Understanding of the legalities in the country, can also come in handy when working in the ‘people functions’ of the organisation (or supporting such), especially when it comes to any formal paperwork. You might learn that in certain areas of the world, the verbal agreement can be as powerful as written contracts.
Language and communications
It’s unlikely that you will be able to learn all the languages of the world or all the languages of all international colleagues you will be working with. But it wouldn’t hurt to try and learn a few phrases in their local language (even just the Hi, Bye, Thank you). Especially important if you will be staying in that area of the world for a while longer.
There is some amazing power in how language connects people. And I don’t mean the actual conversation and words used, but just the willingness to make the effort is a great relationship builder. I’ve experienced it many times myself when visiting countries I didn’t know the language of! And I also see my own reactions when my colleagues say or write thank you or Hi in Polish to me – it always puts a smile on my face and I definitely appreciate their effort.
Aside from that, it is definitely worth researching the do’s and don’ts as well. They are never 100% accurate, but it doesn’t hurt to know what is generally not acceptable, insulting or weird, right?
At the same time, you might want to monitor how you speak as well, especially if you are a native English speaker and the business is done in English. Think about the words you use, avoid the slang or idioms, like This is a game changer or Let’s take a rain check on that.
Leading with cultural intelligence
Another aspect you might want to explore, depending on the context you are in, is the leadership practices around the world. The truth is, majority of the leadership books and articles that are on the market are written by authors from individualist cultures, such as the US or UK. At the same time, the majority of the world on average seems to be more collectivist, driven by slightly different values and norms – such as Middle East, Confucian Asia, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa regions.
Learning about the leadership norms in the regions that your colleagues are from or associate with, is a big step in becoming more culturally intelligent. Don’t necessarily learn about how things are like in a specific country, but rather explore the two far-ends of each dimension, see where you feel most comfortable and where you might make the biggest adjustments.
Values, norms and beliefs
Last but not least, and probably most important, is that it’s helpful to learn about values and norms of the cultures you are working with. Granted, not all the people who associate with those cultures will be the same. But the key here is to get to know the averages and research to know what you might potentially expect, and then making sure to get to know the individual preferences.
Knowing the research that shows the regional differences in how people perceive various aspects of life, leadership and work, is a great step in helping you determine whether a certain behaviour or conflict is culture-related or subject to different personalities and working styles of the individuals on the team.
This knowledge gives you additional lens to look at your relationships with people from other cultures, be it country cultures or professional cultures (like IT professionals, HR people etc.).
Knowing what you don’t know is already improving your cultural intelligence. The sole awareness of what aspects of the cultural knowledge can be useful for your context is already a huge step. Make sure that you have all things cultural at the back of your head when you are working in an international environment. You can then, as the next step, start determining which of the challenges might potentially be related to culture, and which are simply personality clashes.
There is no point in trying to understand every single culture you encounter in a lot of detail. But it is valuable to have a general understanding of how cultures might differ and what aspects you need to pay particular attention to when starting work with a new cultural group.
The dimensions above come from the assessment of Cultural Intelligence (CQ) researched and created by Cultural Intelligence Center.