Cross cultural fluency

Are you cross culturally fluent? We all think that we understand what is happening out there in the world and with a growing sense of globalisation we are all coming into contact with more people that are not the same. The idea of sameness and difference is a big factor in people’s identities but it is increasingly important to both live your identity – but also to have a resilience in being able to suspend judgement – so that you can get business done.


The world of work has changed. You may be outsourcing your work to a office-work centre in some other country and find yourself collaborating and working together on ideas for markets that neither of you have ever worked in.


Gone are the days where companies can afford to work in a homogenous way and where everyone sits on the same floor and can walk across to each other and work through issues. Skills are simply scarce and people combine in new ways to work together on common purposes and vision. This integrated work phenomena is both fuelled by the growing adoption of technology and also the increased costs of global travel and the ever-growing nature of global corporations that chase growth across the world.


Virtual teams come together and need to adapt very quickly to very different work styles and methodologies that are followed in different markets. What may seem obvious for you may work very differently in another place. What seems commonplace to you may not exist in another market.


To operate in this new world requires new organisational and individual competencies including surprisingly a lot of spiritual and emotional intelligence. There is an old saying that it is hard to know others if you do not know yourself. When starting to interact with clients, partners, suppliers and decision makers from other cultures you soon realise that you are in fact different in ways that you did not understand before. This is true also for companies in that the corporate identity and culture becomes the defining factor – much more so than where you come from and how you grew up. It is also true for individuals, as you may have to learn to suspend judgement and assert yourself in unexpected ways to achieve outcomes that came very naturally previously.


Some people thrive on this change and many people just withdraw into their own worlds and insist that people deal with them as they are. While the jury is out on which team will win – it is more likely that cultural fluency will define the winners. It is unfortunately not that easy and as it is important to build language fluency – so there is a new idea of building skill in culture – which translates as cultural fluency.


So ask yourself if you are indeed fluent in the cultures of the world? Can you translate between that which is believed and understood in one culture and realise that it is not the same in another environment, while capitalising on it? These skills are rare but you can learn a lot from programmes that expose you to new ways of thinking and that develop your competencies in this area.


The differences between people play out in the workplace in subtle ways but often have massive consequences. We often think that we have agreed, only to find out later that one person’s “Yes” is another persons’ “I’ll think about it” and for another person it means “I’ll say yes now and we will see what happens later” while for another person it may mean “Definitely not no – but I don’t think it will work”. We often ignore the subtleties of agreement and disagreement, the differences in approaching conflict and how to deal with what remains unsaid. How do we get past these hurdles? There are clear techniques that can be used including agreeing on how tasks will be defined – what deadlines mean and to have a discussion about work-styles. This is why more companies are spending time on “socialisation” of issues and getting to know each other on a social and personal level. When you are in a high performance environment you may need to understand how the other person reacts under pressure and also how the cultural variables enter into the equation. There are also issues of language and cultural biases that may not be obvious in your day to day interactions – but can be the difference between closing the deal and not.


A big challenge in cross-cultural fluency is stereotyping. We may think that all people of a certain race, creed or origin has specific characteristics. Yet every person on earth is unique and it is only in understanding the strengths that a particular person can bring to an environment that we create a new appreciate for the contribution of each person to a collective whole. This requires you to learn to look past barriers of language, development, history, race and many more – and to look at the person behind it. This idea of moving past the external experience of a person to an inner experience is often called relationship mindfulness, caring or just reaching out for the humanity in ourselves. Interestingly, this idea entered into the mainstream when studies showed that there is better results in firms when people are engaged and these days companies are spending a lot more time talking about individual, team, leadership and customer engagement and even more intensely about finding our common humanity in business.


The people that spend a lot of time engaging with people from different cultures develop a way to communicate and through regular practice and become fluent in understanding various differences. Culturally sensitive people develop an ability to learn about other people without stereotyping and cultural masters go on to harness these differences to make the most out of the creativity that is unlocked through different cultures.


One of the best ways to learn about other cultures is to become curious? What makes me different from others? What do I know about my own culture? What excites me, how do I relate to others? What prejudices do I have and where do these come from? This is not always an easy task but well worth the journey.


In the end you can still be yourself – but improving your skill in relating to others may make all the difference.