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.