By Sunniva Heggertveit-Aoudia
“The world is getting smaller,” we say. We travel more. We buy products from every corner of the world—at home. We travel abroad to work. We work in organizations that either have headquarters in another country or in organizations that are connected to other countries for internal or external reasons. Culture is everywhere!
So what is “culture”? There are many cultures: professional, corporate, educational, national (with geographical differences), religious/spiritual, sexual orientation, generational, family and gender. All of these cultures influence us—we see the world through our cultural lens(es). Another important point is that we learn culture and cultural language is not inherited.
Sometimes one or more cultures may take dominance over another culture, depending on the situation. Examples are:
- Corporate culture dominates over national culture
- National culture dominates over religious culture
- Religious culture dominates over sexual orientation
- Generational culture dominates over gender culture
How does culture influence us?
A number of cultural aspects influence the way we interact with other people, including national culture, gender culture, corporate culture and various communication styles. All these elements influence;
- how we conduct work
- our behavior and style
- our use of language
- how we solve challenges, problems, and conflicts
- how we negotiate and
- how we go about creating relationships.
The Importance of Values
Diving a bit deeper on that, all of the above is driven by our values. Values and beliefs are learnt in a national culture, and they may be unconscious. You may not be aware of your own values and beliefs until you are confronted with someone different than you, e.g. working with a colleague from another country (and it may be quite a challenge). Values vary enormously, especially across national cultures. We have a tendency to judge other’s behaviour based on our own cultural norms, the “lens” we see through. And here we have lots of opportunities for potential conflict, misunderstandings and miscommunication. Different values lead to different behavior, behavior you may not understand. It is important that we try to learn and appreciate these differences in order to work effectively with people from other cultures.
Individual vs. group values and behaviours.
According to Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (two cultural “gurus”), individuals are either self-or community-oriented. Which community or group, we identify with differs enormously. E.g. the French identify with country and family, whereas the Japanese identify with the corporation, and the Irish with the Roman Catholic Church.
It has been argued that individualism is the trend of the modern society, but is it really? How often does someone invent a new product all on his own? Or how often do we achieve something only out of own efforts (no help from friends, partners or family)?
Concerning our values, most likely our individual values don’t change in a group. It is very likely that we adapt our behaviors to fit in with the group. This does not always happen, but it does occur more often than you probably think. You can still stay authentic to yourself, at the same time as you try to understand the other and flex your behavior to create a win-win situation for both of you. This is behaving in a “culturally intelligent” way.
What about adapting to a national culture as an expatriate or immigrant, is it a threat to you? Will you forget your origins? You will probably adapt over time, which could mean forgetting some cultural codes and habits (have had some funny situations with that myself). This is in fact practical and it makes sense. It is “survival of the fittest”. We humans have historically been masters at adapting to our environments. Your values will likely stay the same, though.
There is no “one size fits all” on this subject. Creating a successful environment with people from different national cultures working together requires that you make an effort to build a common understanding, trust and commitment. It is advisable to connect with what is important to people, what is below the surface of the person’s “iceberg” (what you cannot see), or the inner layers of values and beliefs. Also consider;
- Is this person task or relationship oriented? Can you send an email with the tasks you would like help on, or do you need to build a relationship first?
- Does s/he come from a high-trust or a low-trust society? There are differences on how easily one would build trust with someone. E.g. in high-trust countries like Denmark, Japan and Germany, you need less time to “prove” yourself than in low-trust countries like France, China and Mexico.
- What about sharing information? Is that done willingly or not? It varies.
- What is “clear instruction” in a direct communication country versus an indirect communication country?
A tip: Be curious; ask your staff/colleagues about their cultural background. Read up on the country and/or talk with others from the same country.
Building trust and commitment across cultures means that you need to use all parts of your cultural intelligence: intercultural engagement (be motivated, your attitude), cultural understanding (know yourself, know the other), and intercultural communication (verbal, non-verbal, communication styles). Listen, be emphatic, speak to people’s heart and mind, “lean in”, be respectful – and you will build trust and be trusted.
The complexities apart, creating some common ground rules does help building trust and commitment. And even better, make sure you talk with team members about what those ground rules really mean to them.
Sunniva Heggertveit-Aoudia, owner of NORSUN Diversity and Cross-Culture Consulting, is a consultant, trainer and co-active coach (CPCC). She has more than 20 diverse years of experience from diversity & inclusion, human resources and customer relations. Sunniva is a diversity specialist and inhabits deep knowledge on working across cultures.