You know how some people get offended by directness? And others get annoyed when people don’t actually say what they really mean? And have you ever wondered why that is?

Some of my trainees really appreciate the space I create for them my in intercultural sessions. It’s a safe setting to discuss these differences and work out why this area can be such a minefield.

So what’s it all about? Well, it’s all down to our culture. And that culture goes deep – it programs us to behave in a certain way. As soon as we leave the comfort of our own culture, we’re confronted with a different one the moment we set foot in another place.

“Culture is the software of the mind.”

Geert Hofstede

Switch off your cultural autopilot

When I arrive anywhere in the world, my first jolt occurs when I remember that people around the world don’t queue like the British. For me, passport control is the first reminder to switch off my cultural autopilot! 

As you can imagine, if something as basic as standing in a line has the potential to fluster and confound, then what about more significant cultural distinctions? These can be much more challenging to navigate.

Last month, my blog looked at the potential for miscommunication when working with people from different cultural backgrounds. I shared some tips on how best to handle this kind of situation.

This month, I’d like to share a couple of personal stories. In interviews with two of my professional contacts, I asked:  How have you handled the challenges of working across cultures and moreover, how have you benefitted from this diversity?

Communication is key

Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.

William Butler Yeats

Scott Biggerstaff is Projects Director for The Instant Group. Based in London, much of his job  involves coordinating clients, suppliers and home offices in international projects. Over the years, he has learned to nip any potential communication problems in the bud in the early phase:  

“On one particular project in Asia, WhatsApp was used as a main communication tool at the outset. Whereas in my own culture, we would have covered the important stuff via email. Because of this, messages weren’t taken seriously at first as a professional form of communication and were overlooked, which meant key issues were missed and not dealt with.”

He also recalls an instance when cross-cultural training would have been really helpful:

“A good example was when a colleague gave his business card to a potential client in the Far East in a rather haphazard fashion which caused offence as there is a particular way of presenting business cards in certain cultures – it nearly cost us a deal.”

And finally, I asked him how a team of mixed cultures can outperform a monocultural team and why? 

“Working in a team of mixed cultures (I was chairing meetings with 20 people of mixed cultures on one particular project) presents its own challenges. My challenge was understanding what makes that particular person “tick” culturally and professionally and how I can bring the best out of them for the benefit of the team whilst appreciating cultural differences. Once you’ve understood that, you can play to that person’s strengths and get them onside, creating mutual respect for the benefit of the project, as well as a unique dynamic that you just don’t get on UK-based projects.”

Women on international assignments

Women can sometimes have to deal with a different set of cultural challenges. This usually depends on where they’re from, as well as the countries they’re sent to. My next interviewee is Janine Hallepape, Licensing Manager at Head, Vorarlberg, Austria. She travels on a regular basis and speaks about the challenges of working internationally:

“It definitely takes a lot of empathy and tact (not only internationally, but also regionally).

What I sometimes notice is that time is treated differently across cultures. If I send a contract to Germany, for example, I usually have it back on my desk on time for the agreed date. If I send a contract somewhere in South America at the same time, it usually takes a lot longer before it is returned. So there are many different interpretations of ‘deadlines’.” 

She says it’s important to have a culturally-sensitive boss:

“It’s difficult for me if there is no respect for women, or if a culture regards women as subordinates. But actually my experience hasn’t been too bad in this respect. This is because my bosses have always supported me. They’ve not exposed me to extreme situations and have always stood by me. Of course, some things you can’t prepare for. We have a lot of male customers around the globe, all of whom give me a warm welcome. But I have encountered men who didn’t shake hands with me and I accept.

Janine definitely values the benefits of working internationally. She believes it has made her  more open-minded, flexible and attentive to the needs of other people. And that her own horizons have been massively broadened. Her motto is:

“If I am polite and mindful to others, they are polite and mindful to me too.“

Transferable skills

So as you can see, working in cross-cultural environment can be an incredibly positive, enriching experience. My colleagues have learned to develop strategies to create synergy within their international teams. And grown professionally in the process. They have also noticed a marked improvement in their general communication skills and expanded their personal horizons as a result.

In short, they’ve realised that in business, putting people into boxes just won’t work! But they definitely recognize that culture plays a big part in a person’s make up. They feel they would definitely benefit from some informative and reflective training before they embark on an assignment. Bidding “adieu” to any cultural faux pas!

“The international manager reconciles dilemmas.”

Fons Trompenaars

So, if you have a cross-cultural team, it’s wise to have team training early on as it speeds up processes and creates greater trust across cultures.  

My cross-cultural team training can last half a day or a full day and is an efficient tool to help understand ourselves and other cultures, as well as encouraging diversity of thought and creating valuable synergy from diversity.

Drop me a note if you want to discuss intercultural training for your company.