Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

Intercultural Competence | Build your Foundation with Self-awareness

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Mon, Feb 06, 2012 @ 09:00 AM

intercultural competence, foundationWhy is cultural self- awareness the first and most important step to intercultural competence? Imagine this scenario: You are working as a part of an intercultural team at your workplace in a large, international city like Boston or New York. Your team consists of people of many different ages, backgrounds and cultures. One day there is a misunderstanding between your team members. There is a major problem that needs to be solved but everyone wants to take a different approach to solving the problem. Let's imagine that you fail to reach an agreement and your project and company suffers and probably loses time and money. Looking back on the problem, you might say that it was a logistical problem or a technical issue that prevented you from reaching an agreement. Would you ever consider that culture might have had something to do with it?


We are at an exciting point in history. We are just beginning to see how we can use cultural differences to create more effective teams at work. However, in order to build intercultural competence, we need to start by gaining an awareness of our own cultural values, norms, worldview and communication style. When you are learning to work across cultures, cultural self awareness must be your foundation. When you have built your foundation, then you can start to understand other cultures and how they might communicate or view the world differently. But the foundation comes first! Why is cultural self-awareness the first step? Read more to find out:


Why Start with Cultural Self-awareness? | 5 Reasons


  • Go beyond the superficial to understand more than "Do's" and "Don'ts": Intercultural competence is much deeper and more profound than understanding what you should do and should not do when you are working in different cultures. If you are here in the United States, you probably know that you need to gain a better understanding of US culture. Perhaps you want to know about the handshake in American business culture, or the "time is money" mentality . It's great that you are thinking about that. But if you don't gain knowledge of your own cultural norms and communication style first and go straight to "do's" and "don'ts" of the culture in which you are living, you miss 90% of what culture really is. Remember, people are complicated! When we talk about what you should and should not do in a culture, there are always exceptions. That is why "do's" and "dont's" should never be the foundation of your cultural awareness. Would you ever build the top floor of a house before building the foundation?


  • Find out how you see the world: Anais Nin was right when she said "We don't see the world the way it is, we see the world the way we are". We all see the world through our own unique lens. If this is true, and you are not aware of your own "lens", how will you know when you are incorrectly interpreting a situation or a conversation with your cultural assumptions?


  • "Know thyself" in a relationship and service-based economy: You can't argue with Plato and according to Princeton professor Alan Blinder in Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution, we are about to enter an era where the majority of jobs will require the successful negotiation and management of relationships. The economy in the future will be less about machines and more about people. This means that communication skills will become even more important. How can you communicate across cultures without understanding your own culture?


  • Understand your own culture for a healthier experience in a new country: I have met expatriates who have told me that they are doing well in the United States and that cultural adjustment has not been a problem. But then I have met others who think they are doing well but their bodies and minds start to show signs of stress that they had not paid attention to. Getting in touch with your own culture also means learning to "feel" how you experience a new culture. This will lead to more knowledge of how your mind and body are experiencing the transition which will allow you to be healthier in a new country and have a better experience overall. So take some time to reflect on your own experience. Learn to be introspective.


  • Succeed anywhere in the world with your inner compass of cultural self-awareness: With an understanding of US business culture, you can be succesful in the United States corporate world. That's great, but what happens when your company transfers you to London or Sydney next year? Will you know the cultural communication norms there?  With a deep awareness of your own cultural norms and communication style, you can use that as your first step toward intercultural competence anywhere in the world. Developing cultural self-awareness is like having an inner compass. If you understand yourself, you can start to understand others regardless of where you are in the world.




Practical Tips for your Life in the U.S.



Topics: Cultural Competence

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