So you are living and working in the United States. What cultural assumptions do you have about American people or about your colleagues from other parts of the world? I have spoken with many international professionals who are working in the US and abroad and the most common thing that I hear from people is "well, I don't really notice too many differences. Basically, we are all the same" Really? We all have the same worldview? The same communication style? The same orientation toward time? I strongly disagree! Perhaps this assumption is our first problem. We often don't see that there are differences. If we are really all the same, why do business deals fall apart between North Americans and Latin Americans when the assumptions about time and scheduling differ. Why do Americans interpet "it will be difficult" as "yes we can do that" when it actually means "no, it's not possible" in Japan.
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Why do we make this mistake?
Why do we perceive similarities when they are not there? One reason is language. If we hear our colleague from Western Europe speaking our own language, we assume they are more similar to us than they actually are. Remember, culture goes much deeper than language. If we have lived in our home countries for most of our lives, or even if we have traveled around the world quite a bit, most likely, we have never been trained to look below the surface, beyond language, traditions and customs, for differences that are not immediately obvious.
How can we stop making the mistake?
We are not all the same and the first step to becoming an effective communicator across cultures is to know what you don't know and look a little deeper for the differences. Even though the differences in worldviews and communication styles aren't obvious on the surface, I can assure you, they are there and they will affect your success communicating with and working with colleagues, supervisors, friends and acquaintances from different cultures. The good news is, if you take the time to learn about those differences, there is an enormous opportunity for creative new ideas to arise when you communicate with your colleagues from a different part of the world.
Challenge your assumptions:
- Assume that differences exist and look for them
- Be aware of your own culture and how that affects your communication style, orientation toward time, working style and general worldview
- Accept ambiguity and allow yourself to learn from the different cultural values of your colleagues
- Get some training in intercultural competence
Do you agree with this article? What is your experience with cultural differences? Please leave your comments or questions below!
Source: Adler, N. (2008). International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, 5th ed.
photo credit: Kiran Raja Bahadur SRK