Working in a cross-cultural environment: Chapter 1. Differences are not obvious

We live in a multicultural and diverse world. Even if we start learning second languages at school, we still remain a a stranger to most cultures, traditions, and usages. There is a kind of magic in being out of place, in a new environment or country where everything is exotic, yet it gets quickly unnerving when you are trying to get somewhere or something. In a working environment, communication is always key and we need to adopt the right approach. Especially if your team incorporates different profiles from various cultures and furthermore if distance or time differences make live communication limited. 

We thought it would be great to share with you a condensed guide, giving reference points on how to understand and manage a distributed cross-cultural team. This article is the first chapter of the guide.

Differences are not always obvious   

The most apparent things to us in a foreign country are what we see, hear and smell: the nature and tradition of our cultures show in our attire at first sight, with recognizable features and accents we are truly surrounded by specific environments from birth. Our life experiences influence the way we interact and organize. In germanic cultures for example, the norm is to organize time and efforts in a detailed manner, people use and expect straightforward processes. French cherish and idealize certain freedom of thoughts and they will tend to discuss matters frontally, change processes and imply shortcuts that can drive their neighbors crazy. Beyond clichés and generalities, a sense of unease builds up sometimes: misunderstandings create resentments and with time, it becomes toxic for the social structure in the organization. 

As everyone’s motivation is impacted by the ambiance, it is a universal problem and we need to work on tolerance and acceptance in order to reduce friction and increase efficiency. Even more so when workers are remote or foreign to your company’s average culture.

Get to know each other

Collaboration is improved when every party understands what the other’s issues are and where they come from. In the traditional office environment, you will learn more about the others at the coffee machine or during lunchtime but remote structures lack those social bonding times. It might be vital to create time daily to exchange your culture and interests. Chatting with them, you will realize how deep certain differences are, and why certain postures, attitude or behavior have a different meaning for others. You will soon realize that the more you talk, the more intricate and enriching differences seem.

Tackling misunderstandings

The diversity of the human experience is fascinating, and being able to see through the clichés allows us to respect and appreciate the qualities of everyone. Cross-cultural teams are efficient only if their members can overcome their biases and notice each other’s effort: the first step can be creating a specific meeting or a regular time for your teams to discuss freely what is bothering them, what attitude or reaction they didn’t understand. The best is to include in that discussion someone with mediation skills and first-hand experiences in cross-cultural environments. Allow everyone to expose their issues before they become problematic. 

In order to go beyond first impressions and build efficient cross-cultural communication and management, we need to understand what cultural differences are and how we can characterize them. As with any human science, there is no global consensus or proven sets of indicators that will allow us to perfectly define each cultural background, yet there are some characteristics that can be used to compare and understand other cultures such as their relationship with time or the level of context and details commonly included in their speech.

In the next article of this series, we will discuss those characteristics starting with differences in our relationship with time and how you can overcome them to keep the intercultural working environments efficient.


1 thought on “Working in a cross-cultural environment: Chapter 1. Differences are not obvious”

  1. Pingback: Working in a cross-cultural environment: Chapter 2. Our relationship with time | OnGlob

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