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Working with those damned foreigners… How to improve your own cultural intelligence and that of your colleagues

Collection-national-flagsDo you work or have you ever worked in an international environment? Do you do business with people of different nationalities from yours? If you do, you might have suffered the embarrassment of cracking a joke and none of the “foreigners” even feigning a smile. Or a time when you have offended someone, in spite of your best intentions, only because you were unaware of the unwritten rules of another culture. In theory, we all know that cultural differences exist. But if we are not aware of the exact nature of those differences, we can drop ourselves in some awkward and sometimes humiliating situations. Getting to know other nations’ unique habits and traditions It shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that many international companies send their colleagues on intercultural awareness training courses, on which they learn about other nations’ particular habits, traditions and sensitivities. That way otherwise uniformed employees won’t make the mistake of handing something over to an African with their left hand, or blowing their nose in public when they have Japanese guests, or fall foul of myriad of other cultural pitfalls. The internet is full of articles, tutorials and videos demonstrating these often unfathomable cultural habits and their differences between nationalities. One lovely example is this series of adverts: Sleeping on the subway Englishman eating eels Of course, these insights  are good to know if you work closely with people with different nationalities from yours. However… Real cultural differences run more deeply than a collection of diverse habits and behaviours. Most of the cultural differences we experience on a daily basis are much more subtle and can’t be attributed to one particular local custom. For example, when you marry into an English family like I have, getting used to offering milk with the tea is the least of your problems. On the other hand not overstepping the fine line between being honest and plain-spoken and being blunt and discourteous –  well this is something I am still learning. From time to time I still put my foot in it, in spite of my 14 years of practice. The same thing is true about intercultural business communication. Most of the frustrations and misunderstandings are not caused by lack of knowledge of one particular cultural habit. Rather they stem from by different attitudes towards work, personal responsibility, leadership and the like. I have heard many Western European and American managers complain that Hungarians just don’t seem to ask questions or express their opinions openly. One such manager remarked: “At the end of a meeting there is just silence. And you don’t know what is going on in their heads. In America this has never been a problem. People openly challenge you, even if you are their manager.” These are the kinds of differences in attitudes and values that cause the most headaches for those of us who work in an international environment. And this is why no intercultural training should focus only on isolated local customs such as how to shake hands or accept a business card “appropriately”. Without seeing the big picture, without understanding how the other culture’s values are different from ours, familiarity with a number of “odd” cultural traditions won’t take us far. Looking behind behaviour: Six dimensions of national culture Geert Hofstede conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of how values in the workplace are influenced by national culture. His extensive research included people from more than 70 countries. Based on Hofstede’s work, six dimensions have been identified that differentiate between different national cultures:

  • Power Distance (PDI) – This dimension indicates to what extent less powerful members of organisations accept the fact that the power in the organisation is distributed unequally. In societies with large PDI people tend accept the hierarchical order as it is, without the need of further justification, whereas people coming from low PDI cultures strive to equalise the distribution of power and expect justification if it is not evenly shared. (If you are interested in this dimesion, watch this 2-minute video.)
  • Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV) – People coming from individualistic cultures are expected – and expect others – to take care of themselves, make their own choices, and reach their own goals.  In collectivistic cultures the group’s interest is regarded as being more important than individuals’ own goals and desires. In these cultures the assumption is that you can rely on the group or the organisation to look after you in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. (If you are interested in this dimesion, watch this 2-minute video.)
  • Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS) – In cultures characterised by high masculinity, people put a lot of emphasis on classic “masculine” values such as achievement, assertiveness and competitiveness. On the other hand, people coming from cultures with a low level of masculinity appreciate more “feminine” values such as cooperation, modesty, care and general quality of life.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) – This dimension indicates to what degree individuals from the given culture are uncomfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. In high UAI cultures, people rely on structures and overt rules, as well as many unwritten rules that determine how people should behave in certain situations. This is how they make life more predictable. In cultures with low uncertainty avoidance, people maintain a more relaxed attitude; they often “take it as it comes” and they are generally more open to taking risks. Looking calm, cool and collected is greatly valued in low UAI culture, whereas in societies with high uncertainty people avoid displaying emotions openly, even if they feel the need to get something off their chest. (If you are interested in further details about this dimension, watch this 5-minute video.)
  • Pragmatic versus Normative (PRA) – The Pragmatic vs. Normative dimension shows to what extent people value and follow long-standing traditions and norms (a normative approach) over a more pragmatic approach towards facing present and future challenges which makes them more flexible, they react more readily to changes in the environment.
  • Indulgence versus Restraint (IND) – This dimension is strongly related to the importance of leisure. In some cultures it is more natural for members of the society to enjoy life and  have fun (“indulgence”), while in other societies restraint and the suppression of gratification of needs is the norm. (Watch this 1-minute video to hear Hofstede’s own thoughts on this sixth dimension.)

A difference between two cultures in only one of these six dimensions can make intercultural cooperation hazardous. The values behind these dimensions are so fundamental to us that it is hard to accept when somebody goes against them. And yet, nowadays it is almost inevitable that you have to work closely with people of different nationalities – so all of us have to learn how to accept and respect those different values. How not to put your foot in it What is the way forward? How can we make intercultural cooperation less frustrating, and instead turn it into an inspirational experience?

  • As a first step, stop thinking about other cultures as just a collection of strange habits and start thinking about the deeper level of different attitudes and values that lie behind those habits.
  • Use Hofstede’s framework to identify in which dimensions your own culture is different from that of the person or persons you are working with. Hofstede provides a great tool to compare countries along the six dimensions.
  • Discover how those differences manifest themselves in your working relationship. Connect your real-life experiences to the dimensions.
  • Find a way to talk about these differences with your international colleagues. Do they see the same differences as you? What do they find unusual, strange, surprising or frustrating when working with you?

And if you are a manager of a team that works in an international environment or a HR professional responsible for learning and development:

  • Organise training sessions to increase employees’ cultural awareness. Make sure that the training doesn’t only focus on teaching them about other nations’ local customs, but offers a more comprehensive view and helps them understand how the other culture’s mindset and values are different from their own.
  • Run these training sessions in groups of mixed nationalities, if possible. This adds great value to the training process.
  • As a manager don’t ever let an anti-foreigner attitude spread in your team. Make sure you nip in the bud any resentment or frustration, by helping people understand the cultural roots of any differences.
  • Above all, encourage your team to look beyond superficial differences in behaviour between people from different cultures. To do that, you yourself need to have a greater awareness of the underlying values that drive cultural habits.