Submitted by Patti McCarthy, Director of Cultural Chemistry for the Positive Living Newsletter (November 2016). Read the rest of the newsletter here.
When we work alone, it can be very easy to work in a vacuum, being so busy pursuing our personal visions that we forget about connection and community until we suddenly find ourselves somewhat isolated, out on a limb and potentially without much meaning in our working lives. Those of us ‘flying solo’ have to make the effort to connect regularly with other freelancers or solopreneurs, so that we feel we have a community of sorts. But in an office environment, it is also surprisingly easy to feel equally isolated and disconnected from our work colleagues, especially when we feel that we are on opposite sides of a cultural divide, which perhaps neither of us knows quite how to cross.
For me and for many people I have coached over the years, ‘meaning at work’ is found in part by feeling part of a community of ‘like-minded souls,’ people with whom we share visions and values, goals and aspirations. Whether we are united in believing that our theatre company produces work of an amazingly high standard or that the bank whom we all work for really does act with integrity compared to its competitors, the pursuit of a shared value adds a layer of meaning to our working day. Equally important, however, is the sense of being surrounded by ‘people like us,’ people who share our view of what constitutes, for example, being well-mannered, friendly, trustworthy, honest, open, and reliable.
Behaviours such as these can, however, be hugely impacted by cultural differences, and many people are left feeling insecure and confused by the differences they encounter. Something that may be accepted behaviour in Western culture—calling a client by his or her first name for example—may be hugely impolite in another. Making eye contact to show honesty may be seen as aggressive; voicing an opinion to the group may be seen as vain. On the other hand, it can be very frustrating for Westerners when a client gives an ambiguous answer in order to maintain harmony and it may be less than thrilling to attend yet another Chinese banquet or one more meeting in which half the group don’t contribute to the discussion.
Management and leadership styles are also cultivated according to that individual’s cultural upbringing; their sense of what is the right thing to do is created by the behaviours they have seen modelled around them. If every manager you ever had was controlling and chauvinistic, that could easily become your model of how successful managers behave, until you move to a country where successful leaders are hands-off and egalitarian and suddenly you find that your technique is no longer effective.
Coming into contact with people who are different to us can be uncomfortable for us and challenge us to question what we always just assumed was ‘right.’ Being surrounded by ‘People Like Us’ is definitely easier, but it allows and even encourages us to be lazy; to just be ourselves without needing to try to communicate. Seeking out the opportunity of working with people who are not like you—whether by becoming an expatriate, reaching out to a newcomer to your office, putting your hand up to work on a client account based in a different country—will almost certainly be to set yourself a challenge, but that’s also where the sense of reward and meaning come from. When was something easy also rewarding? When did something that required no effort give you a sense of meaning and achievement?
In my new book, Cultural Chemistry: Simple Strategies for Bridging Cultural Gaps, I detail hundreds of awkward cross-cultural misunderstandings which have taken place in multiple different countries, but I also look at why they happened. And to understand how those situations could be avoided in future, I introduce an easy to apply, four-step process known as the Four R’s:
Rewards—what’s in it for you? What’s your motivation? What’s your potential reward? Will it make you richer/ happier/ more productive/ a better team member/ a better manager? These answers vary enormously, depending on the individual and their particular situation, but everybody will have a goal of some sort and it’s good to identify it at the start so you can mark both progress and achievement.
Research—given your particular situation, what do you need to know? Do you want to motivate a team of Germans, sell your widgets to China, marry a woman from Thailand? You probably don’t need to be an expert in all things, but you can become an expert in your thing.
Reflect—as well as learning about the other culture, it is critical to reflect on your own culture and to think about how you may be perceived by them. If ‘they’ are people who like to build a relationship over time, maybe producing the sales contract at the first meeting won’t go down so well. If you are a senior female executive presenting to a client in a very male dominated society, maybe your favourite hot pink suit is not appropriate wear. Is it likely to be business as usual and if not, how much might you need to prepare and adapt?
Reach Out—typically by this stage, your research may leave you feeling that you are miles apart from each other. How then will you connect? ‘Reaching Out’ involves a number of strategies from building rapport and supporting those with English as a second language, to playing the cultural detective and not taking slights personally.
All the R’s involve not taking things at face value or at first glance and in looking for the why behind the what. In taking the extra time and making the extra effort needed, I believe that not only will your cross-cultural encounters be more rewarding, but they really will be more meaningful and more memorable too.
Cultural Chemistry: Simple Strategies for Bridging Cultural Gaps is available from all on-line retailers as both an e-book and a paperback and is priced at US$19.95/$24.95. For further information, please contact me at email@example.com or via my website, www.culturalchemistry.com.au.
Director: Cultural Chemistry
Cross-Cultural Training & Expatriate Coaching
(Oxford, UK from July 2017)