Today, cross-cultural dexterity is an essential skill more than ever before, whether we are expanding businesses to an overseas market or planning for an international joint venture or outsourcing a critical function to another continent. As we get more and more exposed to diverse cultures in the workplace, the ability to navigate cultural complexities, especially in communications, has become essential to effectively pursue cross-cultural business prospects.
Having said that, the cultural experience of an expat on a long-term overseas assignment is much different from that of a traveller visiting for a few days. Therefore, developing a greater depth of cultural sensitivity and understanding is even more important when relocating on a work assignment to effectively adapt to the host culture on the long haul.
Having lived and worked as an expat in South East Asia and Europe, I have been confronted many times with cross-cultural experiences that have both humbled and enlightened me. While helping me to develop cultural dexterity, these have also led to a lot of self-reflection, awareness as well as empathy.
Guided by my own experiences, here are five practical insights that every culturally adept professional has mastered to navigate their cross-cultural experiences to deliver results.
Awareness of Own Cultural Biases
Our views, attitudes and behaviours are intensely shaped by our own cultural influences much more than we realize. What is acceptable in one country could be unacceptable, obsolete or even deplored in another. Therefore, while learning the nuances of a foreign culture, it is just as important to be aware of and understand our own cultural biases.
I remember one such experience that made me re-think my own cultural biases when I first relocated to Myanmar on a work assignment. I was driven back to my apartment one evening in the typical after-work traffic of Yangon city. Glancing out of the window, I suddenly noticed a small boy, not more than 5–6 years, attempting to cross a busy main road. Unattended by an adult, he stepped on to the road and quickly retreated at the sight of a speeding vehicle. With a driver who spoke no English, my attempts to stop the car to help the child became futile. The moment I arrived at my Apartment building, I hurried to the reception and related the story to the front-desk staff. I was met with blank stares, as they seemed confused by my exasperation, worry and animated reactions. I couldn’t help but notice that they seemed more concerned about calming me down than attempting to locate the poor child.
Over the next few weeks, I came across what I considered to be equally disturbing sights. Children aged around 6 years walking to school on their own along busy main streets and toddlers playing unattended on smaller by-roads became common sights. Meanwhile, conversations with my local colleagues revealed an unexpected side to my observations.
For those born and bred in Myanmar, where child abuse, kidnappings and paedophilia are almost unheard of, their attitude towards child supervision was not driven by fear for safety unlike ours. While we may view their behaviour as irresponsible and ignorant, they perceive our intense concern for child safety as unwarranted. This experience made me acutely aware of my own cultural influences and biases while leaving me feeling embarrassed of the extent to which our cultures have deteriorated.
While this is an example from a non-corporate context, this illustrates the vastly different cultural influences that shape our individual perspectives, attitudes and behaviours. The high trust culture of Myanmar is reflected beyond the daily life and even extend to their corporate culture, from leadership and teamwork to motivation and change management.
Harnessing Insider Knowledge
Intermediaries with sound knowledge of the host culture are also critical to effectively navigate subtle cultural complexities that are often elusive to an expat.
I experienced this first-hand while developing a campaign for a new wine cooler product for the Myanmar market. While short listing a set of taglines for the new product, a Myanmar national from our advertising agency in Bangkok insisted that we consider a tagline we had initially excluded. The reason for excluding this particular tagline — Jazz new you, Jazz new me — (‘Jazz’ being the name of the product) was its obvious lack of meaning. However, to our surprise, this was selected during focus group tests by a significant majority, as the Myanmar consumers were able to provide it with a meaningful interpretation. Ultimately, the advice by the local expert proved invaluable for us to successfully launch the new brand in Myanmar.
Failure to understand these subtleties of a foreign culture can lead to critical cross-cultural dilemmas. For example, a high context culture such as China considers direct negative feedback as rude and insensitive, as they place greater focus on the context than the message itself, contrary to most Western cultures. Therefore, a more indirect “maybe” or “I’ll think about it” is often preferred over a direct “no”. Similarly, a ‘yes’ may not necessarily mean agreement in many Asian cultures. While this could be perceived as an indication of dishonesty or a lack of integrity in the UK, in China it may simply indicate respect, harmony or allowing room to ‘save face’.
While all this could be confusing and difficult to identify for an expat, locals with a deep understanding of these cultural nuances could help successfully navigate cross-cultural complexities.
Actively Engaging with the Host Culture
The importance of taking a proactive approach towards engaging with the host culture is often overlooked by most expats who limit their cultural experience to the workplace.
Active engagement is about spending quality time with the local colleagues and taking a genuine interest and being part of their way of life. While this is important to learn the deep-rooted cultural norms, values and practices that are often unseen on the surface, it will also go a long way in building mutual trust and respect.
Failure to do so could widen the perceived cultural gap, often leading to misunderstandings and deteriorating trust between the expats and the locals. When living in the UK, I observed the reaction of Brits towards Sri Lankans who spent more time with other Asian nationals, and when living in Sri Lanka I observed the same reaction from locals towards Brits who spent more time with others from the UK. While this behaviour is often triggered by our innate need for belongingness, familiarity and comfort when living in a foreign land, it may be negatively perceived by the host culture as an indication of arrogance or rejection of the local culture.
Understanding Sub Cultures
Even within a country culture, subcultures can exist with characteristics that differ from the dominant culture. The US, which rates low in power distance based on Hofstede’s studies, can also demonstrate high power distance depending on the social context.
The US Military is a good example of this, which is known for its formal hierarchies, respect for authority, and top-down communication, as well as customs, rituals and rules reinforcing these. However, this visibly high power distance culture has evolved to serve specific functional requirements of the Military, which differs from those of average US civilians.
Similarly, these subcultures can exist in different organizations within the same country. For example, punctuality could be highly valued at a multination corporation based in Malaysia, whereas being late for a meeting will be perfectly acceptable in most Malaysian organizations.
Therefore, while it is important for an expat to understand and appreciate a country’s dominant culture, it is equally important to avoid the trap of generalization.
Knowing that Cultures Evolve
From technological advancements to the migration of populations, many factors are driving how and why cultures evolve today.
The widely discussed “Kong Kids” phenomenon is a good example of this, where children born since the mid-1990s in Hong Kong are identified with characteristics such as self-centeredness, lack of empathy, overindulgence in digital media, and lack of interest in developing personal relationships. The term was first coined in the book “Kong Kids: The Nightmares for Parents and Teachers“ published by MingPao in 2009, which discusses an alarming shift in attitudes and behaviours among the younger generations in Hong Kong that contrast with its typical collectivist culture.
Ultimately, what all this means is that our cultural knowledge could become obsolete over time and therefore continuous engagement with a particular culture is required to avoid making business decisions based on outdated knowledge.
While there is no better substitute for first-hand experiencing a culture, developing a cultural sensitivity is invaluable to effectively prepare ourselves to deal with cross-cultural business environments. Whether relocating on a long-term assignment or travelling for a business meeting, cultural dexterity is irrefutably an essential skill for today’s professional to pursue business success.
(This article was first published on Medium)