Are We Culturally Clumsy?

Culture Meeting

Do you remember the last culturally clumsy situation you were in? Or, the last time you said something that was not quite right, and you just couldn’t understand how to remedy it? I got to thinking about this the other night at a Cultural Intelligence seminar, where a woman asked, “What can I do to rise above the feeling that I’m always making cultural mistakes?”

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why did she think she was wrong? Who was right?

Being culturally intelligent is a vital role played by all those that communicate in the workplace – from leaders of a business, to those in support roles. It is particularly necessary in Australian workplaces where the hierarchy is traditionally quite flat and we see a wide range of cultures consistently intermingling.

One of the biggest challenges that we face in achieving cultural awareness, is not necessarily through verbal communication, but in listening and removing stereotypes of how people from different cultures connect. By communicating and appreciating the differences between cultures first, a workplace can then build its rapport of verbal communication. As an example, I worked with Xiaoli a few years ago, who everyone first thought was incredibly shy and was not confident in bringing new ideas to the table. However, after a few client meetings, it became clear, that she did in fact have many great ideas, and would willingly and confidently share them, but only when invited to do so. This opened a new avenue for her leaders to understand her better, and the way in which she communicated in the workplace.

For her managers, it was helpful to learn this difference and for Xiaoli, it allowed her to feel more accepted and part of the team. However, the slippery slope, that has us descend into judgement – whether it be of the other person or of ourselves being – will never allow us to be empathetic nor to embrace the innovation, creativity and joy that comes from opening up to cultural, personal or any type of difference – whether we are experiencing it locally or abroad, with a colleague or client.

While I was digesting all these thoughts, I created this activity that I want to share with you. The key objective of it, is to reduce confusion, build certainty and generate communication confidence for you.

To improve your cultural awareness, I suggest following three main stages to create positive self-awareness of how you feel in your cultural surroundings:

  1. Reflect daily and create a safe place that you can learn, rehearse, practice and improve and continue observing your cultural interactions and their nature
  2. Create weekly objectives for yourself to address what it is that you want to improve about yourself
  3. Create a discussion at the end of each week, to find a way to start implementing what it is that you have learnt not only about yourself, but about language techniques that break down barriers and about the environment around you.

National and Organisational Culture

It is always interesting to think about where and how cross-cultural communication and competencies comes into project management or organisational success. It is also often a difficult thing to discuss with so many generalisations that are helpful in many ways, but also lead to oversimplification and stereotyping.

Karen Smits talks about her research into national and organisational cultures with some interesting findings from her investigation into a large multinational, multiorganisational project in Central America. She is interviewed by Chris Smit in this audio file at the following address.

3 Tips for cross-cultural collaboration

  1. Have an Open Mind; Know your own culture and be able to understand the “other” culture.
  2. Adapt & Adjust; Or go with the flow. If someone is late for a meeting don’t get (too) upset.
  3. Language; be aware that not everyone can express themselves in a foreign language as well as you might be able to do.

5 Language & Cultural Elements of Karen’s Case Study in Panama

Towards the end of the interview Karen discusses some generalisations around her own Dutch nationality and the Panamanian one she found herself in during her research. She identifies certain important dimensions and made her own observations:

  1. Time – the Dutch are very adherent to time and therefore being late is seen as being a time waster; however, in Panama this is more relaxed and fluid.
  2. language – the Dutch language and therefore behaviour is more direct whereas the Panamanians tend to be softer and smoother and less harsh.
  3. family – the Dutch family involves more immediate family whereas in Latin America it is extended to aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, nieces, nephews.
  4. gender – Karen felt she was able to get access more due to her position in this male dominated construction environment.
  5. appearance – Karen also felt that her blond hair and blue eyes gained her greater access to information and sections of the company – where she might not have otherwise succeeded.

Karen’s cross-cultural collaborations research on the Panama Canal Expansion Program involved a combination of national cultural diversity (Spaniards, Italians, Belgians, Panamanians and Americans working together) and organisational cultures across a number of different organisations all working closely together on the one project.

This showed her that culture needs to be high on the cultural agenda and the reality is that this doesn’t often happen. The reason for this seems to be that there is a strong focus on hard skills like engineering-related tasks and that the perception is that there is no time to spend on the softer skills such as cultural competencies. However, what gets overlooked, is the manner and approaches to work. Karen Smits says that it is not important to find a unified way of working but, in fact, to be aware of the differences so that they can be incorporated holistically into the development of the program in order to avoid conflict, breakdowns and inefficiencies.

She says that it is not necessarily coming from a place of ignorance, but rather that the urgency is underestimated. The ramifications are realised too late after conflict has occurred and this costs the organisation a lot of time and money to rectify in getting the program back on track.

The ideal solution for Karen Smits would be for someone like her to be involved from the beginning – before conflict arises – in order to lay the groundwork, which would be to undertake profiling to know the differences and similarities between collaborators and to instil a sense of equality with a focus on working effectively with these differences and similarities.

For more information on related issues go to Culture Matters.