The following article is a guest post.
Most people take their own culture for granted. They are generally unaware of the cultural rules and biases that they live by and that affect their daily interactions.
Culture is rarely formally taught and generally passed down through subconscious absorption of the actions of others. However, if you open your mind to different cultures, particularly those in your workplace, you will find that it can be very rewarding.
Additionally, opening yourself up to other cultures can help you understand your colleagues better.
Make a Conscious Decision to Seek Understanding.
If you are in a different location, you cannot expect things to be the same as they are in your home country.
If someone speaks or acts in an unexpected way, you should ask them to help you understand their behavior and perspective. You will often find that they are completely unaware that they are doing something that you find strange and this engagement can help you build a better relationship with them.
An example of this is a person who was talking to their Swedish boss. As they were speaking, the boss would make a sound as they inhaled which was similar to a gasp. The same thing happened when they spoke with their boss’ boss who was also Swedish. When questioned about this, the boss did not understand what the employee was talking about at first, but as they continued to talk it made sense. The noise was made to acknowledge what the employee was saying, but had been so ingrained that they were not even aware that they were doing this.
Do Not Make Assumptions.
Many people assume that clear communication along will be enough to overcome any cultural differences they could face. But this could actually make everything more difficult for everyone involved.
It is better to seek cultural competence first because this will help you understand other people. This is something that can easily be overlooked when someone visits you in your home country. So you need to take the time to consider how you can help them understand the cultural differences.
Someone working as part of a cross-cultural team might hear their German colleague say that they should be careful to not mow your neighbor’s lawn. This is a comment that people might ignore as it will not make sense in the context.
Yet, when asked what this means you will find that they are telling you to be careful that you do not work on something that is someone else’s responsibility. A US translation of this idiom would be to not step on someone else’s toes.
Approach with Curiosity and Not Judgment.
Judgment is something that builds walls.
When you believe that your customs are the best and everyone else should conform to them, you will miss out on great opportunities that come with appreciating other cultures. Different does not mean better or worse just that something is different. Approaching with curiosity allows you to understand and build bonds through this understanding.
An example of this is a man working in Japan holding a door open for their female colleagues. The colleagues asked him to stop doing this and to let them open the door on their own. In Japanese culture, a businessman opening the door for women means that he is a lower-level associate.
This can be a surprise for businessmen from Western cultures where opening the door is seen differently. Such difference is not better or worse. It is simply something other than what you might be used to.
You Need to Pay Attention.
It is important that you pay attention to the little actions of other people. When you see something that does not make sense to you, you need to take the time to ask about it. It could be nothing, but it could also provide you with insight into a different culture or an opportunity to respect others and improve your relationship with them.
A Western worker in Japan was at a restaurant for an informal lunch. Their colleague poured water into their glass even though it was full and their own glass was almost empty.
Now that’s actually a custom where you fill the glasses of others when they are getting empty and it is not appropriate to fill your own glass. It’s due to the fact that you are showing them a courtesy. Filling the glass – which was already full – is a polite way of giving someone the opportunity to serve them.
This is something that you might not know if you do not pay attention to what people are doing and ask about it.
Be Willing to Change Your Own Approach.
If you are aware that the cultural norms and behaviors are different in the location you are in, you need to approach any issues from their perspective. This is particularly important when you have a business meeting or trying to get along with people in a social setting.
An American in Mexico could feel that a meeting had gone well and that progress had been made only to receive a written summary that is very different to this. This is due to the fact that Mexican culture is very polite and does not like it when people say no.
What this means is that if you ask a direct question of whether something will be done on a certain day and the answer is no, you might not hear this and will be disappointed. In these cases, it is better to ask when something will be completed.
Commit to Mutual Respect.
People appreciate it when you take the time and make a genuine effort to fit in even if you do not actually get it right.
Learning a few words in a local language can go a long way as will asking questions. Engaging in a journey of understanding will help you. Remember, though, that there is a fine line between stereotyping and cultural understanding. It is key to remember that there are individuals in a culture.
Also, it’s important that you help people who are visiting your country. Paying attention to things that they could find odd and offer them an explanation can make them feel more comfortable in a strange environment. You should always do this with respect because it will give you respect in return.