Have you ever been in a situation where you encountered a challenging interpersonal situation, and started wondering – is there something more to it you should explore, or maybe it’s just a personal clash that you don’t want to do much about?
It is extremely helpful to be aware of the cultural differences, to learn about cultural dimensions and increase your own self-awareness. When going to a new region for the first time, certainly learning about cultural values can be helpful to give you a more general idea of what you might expect and what to prepare for. But not every person is the same. Not every person is your ‘average German’ or the ‘average Chinese’.
Understanding the distinction
When we start getting the high-level knowledge about the cultural differences, we may have the tendency to attribute any challenges and disagreements to cultural clashes. It is something typical for many learning situations, when we immerse ourselves completely in a new topic. It’s good in a way, it lets us try to apply the newly acquired knowledge to the everyday life, but it can also be detrimental if we don’t see the bigger picture. Culture in many cases may be a significant factor in how people prefer to work and interact with others. But it’s not the only one.
How the person behaves is a mix of various experiences – the culture they grew up in, the upbringing, their family home, their schools, the peers they have been hanging out with, the organisations they worked in, their personality… Almost every situation and every interaction influence us in one way or another. Many of them have a role in how we perceive the world, other people and ourselves.
How to use cultural knowledge on a daily basis?
Inevitably, when diving deeper into the cultural topics, at some point the question will appear: How do I distinguish what is cultural, and what is simply this person’s style?
There are some questions you may ask yourself when faced with a challenging interpersonal situation. These questions can help you verify your hypotheses if you think there might potentially be something cultural to it. The more you work with people from certain cultures, the more you will start seeing patterns, and then it will become easier for you to see whether something might have a cultural background or not.
Let’s say you are working in an international team and you feel the project is stuck because of a certain interpersonal challenge. Ask yourself:
- Why do I feel this is a challenge? What is so challenging about it?
- Does this certain behaviour or situation influence only me personally, the whole team, the whole project? In what ways?
- What in particular is triggering some negative emotions in me? What does it tell me about my values and what’s important to me?
- What is the other colleague’s cultural background? What does the research suggest about the ‘typical, statistical’ person from such background(s)? Does it match with the person’s behaviours? If not, looking at cultural dimensions what are the key characteristics of this person’s style?
- Is this the first time I have seen a person from similar background behave like this? If not, is there any pattern I have seen in the past?
- Compared to my cultural background, where are the biggest differences on cultural dimensions in how we approach various situations?
Spend those 10-15 minutes alone on asking those questions and reflecting on various interactions and team dynamics that have occurred. It might then be easier for you to have a conversation with the team about how to move things forward, what works and what doesn’t, what is challenging emotionally for you and for the other team members.
In the Culture Map article series you can find many tips on adjusting to a different working style of your team members.
Understanding where your feelings come from is also extremely important. Emotions let you know what matters to you especially when they are strong or sudden, like anger or surprise. What might matter to you might not be equally important for other team members. It is important to realise this when working in an international environment, acknowledge the differences and decide whether you can work out some of the disagreements through a few simple adjustments or conversations. Sometimes it takes more than just “you need to adjust to our ways” approach. Sometimes you need to really understand where the other person is coming from, to make the work more effective.