I was recently asked why most intercultural training starts with taking a closer look at your own culture.  I could see the client just wanted to get straight down to business and learn about how to manage her team in the UK.

When people seek out intercultural training, there is usually an international assignment on the horizon or cross-cultural team building in mind. Some people want to learn how to work with India. Others want to negotiate in Italian. Or to send emails to the British.

Is there anything wrong with this? No, of course there isn’t.

Let’s face it, even the most experienced of global leaders aren’t able to know everything about every culture around the world. And who has time to read a book on every culture they interact with if they’re working for a multicultural team?

However, we must be aware that culture is fluid and it’s generational – it’s constantly changing. So before we read a 2-page guide on how to do business with X, Y or Z and risk stereotyping, it’s crucial that we start all cross-cultural exploration with looking at you. Yes, YOU!

The Oz Moment

Let’s start with a phenomenon called “The Oz Moment”.  In the film The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy first opened the door of her house and stepped into Munchkinland and the film shifted from black and white to technicolour – this is known as “The Oz Moment”.

The interculturalist Joseph Shaules talks about the Oz Moment a lot in his work. He makes some fascinating points about how we experience the unfamiliar when we are abroad. Sometimes it’s small things that we observe in other cultures that stay with us forever in terms of memories (physical or sensory) and images. 

I remember sitting waiting for a flight at Chelyabinsk Airport in Russia at 5am a few years ago and seeing a vending machine for contact lenses. I’d never seen a vending machine for contact lenses before and didn’t expect to see one there and then. What I do remember is where I was sitting, being half awake as it was so early in the morning and that my brain was trying to make sense of what Shaules calls “a hard to interpret phenomena”. This is an example of an Oz Moment.

When we go abroad we experience a lot of these Oz Moments and when we work internationally, we are confronted with them too. It’s getting to the bottom of why we react that way to the unknown that’s interesting and finding out about ourselves and how we tick. It’s understanding these Oz moments and making sense of them. This is where cultural exploration of the self begins. By noticing differences, we question ourselves and our own culture. An external cultural experience make us take a look at our own culture, our own behaviour and if we are really clever, we learn to see it through a different lens.

This is why cross-cultural exploration in effect starts with YOU.

Values – personal or cultural?

According to the anthropologist, Christina De Rossi, Culture encompasses religion, food, what we wear, how we wear it, our language, marriage, music, what we believe is right or wrong, how we sit at the table, how we greet visitors, how we behave with loved ones, and a million other things.

At the start of intercultural training I ask participants to tell me about their identity, their values, their cultural values and their company values. These can all be aligned or different. It then gives them the opportunity to see what is important to them and which values they can flex on and which ones they can’t. The importance of cultural values — both for society and individuals — cannot be overstated.  They are what shape a society and its people; differences in cultural values between society and the individuals within can lead to problems such as culture clash, miscommunication, and more. This is why it’s vital that you not only understand the importance of cultural values as a whole but that you understand the cultural values themselves.

Knowing YOUR cultural values is the best place to start.

Self-awareness

A vital skill required by international assignees is self-awareness – a competence that goes deep and is, therefore, harder to learn.

By using self-reflective tools such as the Johari window professionals can reflect on how they are perceived by others in various international scenarios. Reflective awareness is both a component of Emotional Intelligence and Cultural Intelligence. People who have grown up in more than one culture or who have lived /worked abroad very often have the ability to self-reflect as they have been exposed to many behaviours and cultural norms. Consequently they have learned how to question their own cultural norms and behaviour and have developed their self-awareness in the process.

Personally, I have also become so much more self-aware through working across cultures. Being emotionally intelligent is part of it but the next level is cultural intelligence – being able to reflect on your behaviour in different contexts. My communication style is British, fairly indirect and polite, not always saying what I mean in case I upset someone. But working with other cultures I have had to learn more aware about becoming clearer in my communication.

Clarity is key in intercultural work – but getting the balance right between being clear and diplomatic is not always easy. Native speakers of English sometimes use too many words to say something simple when working with non-native speakers and this is something that causes miscommunication in the global working environment. This is one small example of how self-awareness is key to improving intercultural skills. And this is just one tiny intercultural competence – cultural intelligence encompasses many more. It is lifelong learning – a key driver for professional development, employee satisfaction and the economy at large.

Explore you!

Intercultural training – either in groups or individually – is a great way of building awareness about working across cultures. It can focus on the country being dealt with in the form of cross-cultural training or can look at multicultural teams and how to find greater understanding of cultural and personal working styles. 

The starting point is you – once you’ve understood your own cultural values, you’ll see why your buttons get pressed in certain scenarios. If you value punctuality, of course you will be irritated if your business partner is not on time according to your watch! Should you favour direct communication and someone sends you a long email, maybe you can’t find the purpose of the message. But at least you have a point of reference that you can then question, interpret, verify and communicate back to your partner.

Knowing you and your cultural norms and values is the number one stop for improving your cultural fluency! And the good news is that all intercultural competences are transferable skills that can benefit you in your home country too.