Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

Cultural Awareness Training | The Problem with DOs and DON'Ts

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Mon, Feb 27, 2012 @ 08:22 AM

cultural awareness training boston DOs and DON'Ts

These days, many organizations are providing cultural awareness training for their employees.

If you have recently moved to the United States, is your company helping you develop the skills that you need to be an effective communicator at work?

Improving our cultural awareness can prevent a lot of misunderstandings. It can help us form better intercultural teams and more creative solutions by leveraging the power of different perspectives and ways of thinking.

The only problem is that when people think of cultural awareness, they often think that they need to learn the DOs and DON'Ts regarding how to act and communicate in a different culture.

What's wrong with that? Well, in some ways it's great to take the time to learn about etiquette and customs in your new culture.  If you just moved to the US, it could be very helpful to have a nice, clear bulleted list of things that you should and should not do. It's simple and straightforward. But take a few moments to think about it.

Can your culture or any culture be reduced to a "simple and straightforward" list of bullet points and generalizations?

There is a better way to gain cultural awareness. Read more about it in today's article.

Reflect on the DOs and DON'Ts of your own culture:

Take a moment to make a list of 5 etiquette DOs and DON'Ts for your own culture. 

Ok, now take a look at your list. In how many situations do these rules NOT apply?

Probably quite a few. Hopefully you get my point. Your country is diverse with different regions, different people, and maybe different languages.

How can it be summarized by DOs and DON'Ts?


What's the problem with DOs and DON'Ts ?


  • They create generalizations and perpetuate stereotypes: Even when "DOs" and "DON'Ts" are meant to help you adjust and communicate and don't mean to harm anyone, they create a way of thinking about people in very simple, generalized terms. 


  • They could get you into trouble: If you memorize the list of "DOs and DON'Ts" that you are given, you may not take the time to observe whether or not those behaviors are really appropriate. This could mean that you lose the respect of your colleagues or even cause a business deal to fail.


  • They don't consider context: In your home country, do you act the same way in every situation? With your family? With your friends? With your colleagues? Cultural etiquette and norms can vary dramatically depending on the context and when you use a list of DOs and DON'Ts to make judgments on how to act without paying attention to context, you might end up making big mistakes!


  • They define "culture" as "country": Is your culture just the country that you come from? What about your gender? region? class? company? industry? generation? In New York City, what could be proper etiquette for a conservative banking firm on Wall Street might be completely different for a young advertising company in SOHO.



A better way to develop cultural awareness:


So if DOs and DON'Ts aren't the best way, what is the besy way to learn how to interact with people from different cultures? Here are three ideas:


  • Develop Cultural Self-awareness: All understanding of what's going on outside of ourselves starts with an awareness of what is happening on the inside. Start by looking inward, learn to observe yourself and your own culture. Become more aware of how your cultural norms could be different from those in the culture where you are working and living. Understanding your own culture is the foundation of intercultural competence. You would never build the top floor of a house without completing the foundation, would you?


  • Improve your Observational Skills: Being able to observe an environment and make an informed decision about proper etiquette, communication style and cultural norms is much more powerful than memorizing a list of DOs and DON'Ts. Learn to observe and you will be successful in a new culture.


  • Learn the Dos and Don'ts but understand their limitations: Sure, go ahead and learn about why it's important to be punctual in the U.S., but don't be shocked when your American colleagues regularly challenge that rule by showing up late to meetings. Understand cultural norms and values, but look at them as a hyphothesis that might apply in many situations, not a rule.



We are heading in the right direction:


The fact that people are familiar with the term "cultural DOs and DON'Ts" means that we are on the right track.

We are finally waking up and realizing that we simply cannot expect to be successful in our work with different cultures without understanding those cultures.

So if DOs and DON'Ts are the first step to cultural awareness, then we are heading in the right direction. But, it's not good enough. We have to go further and look beyond DOs and DON'Ts if we truly want to be effective while communicating across cultures!



Practical Tips for your Life in the U.S.


Topics: Cultural Competence

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