It’s a bit of a running joke that British people can be unfailingly polite and indirect, no matter what they’re trying to say. By now you may have seen the Anglo-EU Translation guide, which includes such gems as “What the British Say - ‘That Is A Very Brave Proposal.’ What The British Mean - ‘You Are Insane.’”
But cultural understanding is not always a joke. In Japan, you bow rather than shake hands in a business setting. In Canada, you’re expected to arrive exactly on time for a meeting. In Brazil, meetings often run late but if you leave early, you’ll be looked at as very rude.
There’s more to learning a language than verbs, nouns, and tenses. You may have been focused solely on furthering your skills in a language that will create business opportunities for you, without giving a thought to the customs that come with it. To make sure your speaking and comprehension doesn’t outpace your cultural fluency, read on.
1. Take Your Own Pulse
There may be things you don’t know that you don’t know. Do you have complete cultural blindspots? Get expert guidance on benchmarking your own sensitivity to another culture. Whether that takes the form of some quality time on Google, or whether it’s a more formalized coaching session, depends on your timing and the specifics of your situation.
Organizations like the Intercultural Development Inventory actually assess cultural fluency. They note that while some people understand observational differences (i.e., food) they have a harder time with deeper cultural differences (i.e., conflict resolution styles). The highest form of cultural fluency, according to them, is “adaptation - an orientation that can shift cultural perspective and change behavior in culturally appropriate and authentic ways.”
2. Engage Your Curiosity
If you’re traveling or engaging with other cultures in a professional capacity, the onus is on you to be open-minded. Your routine activities and behaviors could be construed as ineffective of inappropriate when put into a different context. Do not expect other people to accommodate your culture.
Instead, try to be open-minded with colleagues, peers, and leaders. Do your research ahead of time and ask questions about what’s expected of you, how to be polite and thoughtful, and how not to step out of bounds. If you listen more than you speak, at least until you’ve got an adequate grasp of intercultural customs, you are likely to stay out of trouble.
3. Immerse Yourself in Media
By reading books, watching films, looking at the news, and checking out videos and tutorials of the culture you’re studying, you’ll pick up on more than you can in grammar textbooks and language-learning exercises. How do people approach each other, where do people meet to socialize, and what are the customs that are most embraced? Observation of normal people doing normal things will help you feel like you’re approaching more familiar territory.
4. Don’t Be Easily Offended
It’s important to be aware of how you may come across as offensive. It’s equally important to become as relaxed as possible about things that might normally offend you. When in doubt, it probably boils down to a difference in attitude and culture. Did someone say something in a less-than-graceful way? They could be stumbling through English without having 100% of the vocabulary they need on-hand. Did someone arrive late or leave you wanting more personal space? Often, differences in norms around these factors come from simple cultural divisions. They’re not personal.
5. Rehearse Conflict Resolution
Especially in a business setting, the time may come when conflict does arise. It is best to remain nonjudgmental and try to approach the conflict head-on. Try to prepare for conflict resolution by practicing it in advance.
One strategy for doing this would be to write notes about how to create comfortable environments in the culture you’re interacting with. Do one-on-one meetings signify that someone is getting in trouble, or are they the quickest path to clearing up issues? What other factors need to be considered when it comes to clearing obstacles?
Research business environments, customs, and conversations, and understand how conflicts are usually resolved within these arenas. Ask for feedback on how leaders would traditionally resolve certain common issues.
While you may not build up complete cultural fluency overnight, the best method for cultural fluency is an open-mind and a tendency to err on the side of caution until you learn more. As you learn a new language, don't forget to build up your cultural fluency in tandem.
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