The intercultural skills you never knew you had
04 July 2019 -
Intercultural skills are not as complicated as you think. You probably have some right now
The economy is global, which means employees with experience of different cultures, backgrounds and languages. But you don’t have to be a globetrotter to pick up intercultural skills, some of which you may have already.
The increasing diversity of workplaces means monocultural teams are vanishing. If you find yourself in a position to influence, lead or manage people, there’s a very good chance that you’ll be engaging in intercultural encounters.
A suite of intercultural skills will equip you to thrive in this environment and add value to your organisation. Intercultural skills intersect with many other soft skill sets, but they tend to fall into three categories:
This is more than a knowledge of other cultures – it’s also an understanding of our own cultures and the differences between them.
Seek a greater knowledge of relevant cultures, organisations and institutions. Get a general sense of how different communities and nations live. Being interculturally aware means recognising that these aspects affect behavioural norms. For example, the history of tension between Greeks and Turks means it might be insensitive to serve Turkish food to a Greek person.
You should also have an understanding of how culture can affect communication and language. For example, people from Nordic countries are often said to speak more frankly than native English speakers, who tend to use more ‘polite’ language. Scandinavians working in the UK have reported causing offence to English people by failing to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ enough.
This understanding should extend to conventions that may govern behaviour in certain specific intercultural environments, such as views on the roles of women, or attitudes towards children.
The best way to avoid misunderstandings? Listen carefully and check your understanding regularly in the course of a conversation. Ask questions to make sure that you have understood, and ask others to recap what you have said to ensure that they have understood you.
To manage a multicultural team successfully, you must find common ground. You must be to value and respect differences, with a willingness to recognise when these may clash, but creating a group culture that goes beyond each member’s preferences.
For this to work, you’ll have to be open about your own preferences. You can’t expect other people to read your mind, as there’s a good chance they will interpret your actions based on their own cultural background.
Demonstrate your willingness to meet others at least halfway by learning a few phrases in their language. A few phrases, even if it’s only ‘Good morning’, ‘good evening’, or ‘thank you’, will go a long way.
The challenge is to stay open-minded about different approaches to work. Take time to reflect on the limits of your own assumptions and preferences, learning from diverse cultures around you. Practise your openness, inclusiveness, sensitivity, and ability to interact respectfully with all people.
In particular, be alive to cultural stereotypes that may affect and interfere with intercultural communication.
At all times, be willing to adapt your behaviour, and don’t always expect others to adapt to you. This includes not being offended if someone unwittingly does something that you find difficult to accept. You don’t have to accept it, but it’s best to explain politely why you find it hard.
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