For many professionals, preparation for working with people from other cultures stops at a small bit of language learning. They believe that as long as they can get their point across, their communications with multinational colleagues will be successful.
Cultural competency—the factors that will truly define a multinational relationship—goes much deeper than that.
Yes, language is the first step toward cultural competency, the one that makes all other levels of interaction possible. But once you cross the language barrier (which is becoming easier and easier to do with the advent of online, on-demand language learning), there are many other things to understand about your colleague.
Business management consultant Miinniie K. Juneja equates culture to the time-tested iceberg analogy in a recent blog post for Huffington Post India:
“If we think about [the] iceberg analogy and relate it to culture, what we see on top of the iceberg are our behaviours. But what lie below the waterline are our attitudes, beliefs and values. As we observe a culture more closely we notice many subtle nuances that go beyond language. These include traditions, customs, food, and acceptable dress code etc… But spotting group attitudes, cultural nuances, personal biases are difficult at the surface level. And understanding these hidden factors is essential for any competent global leader to bridge trust, gain loyalty and co-create long-term value.”
Unfortunately, understanding cultural dynamics can be a lot more challenging than simply learning a language, although a language learner will naturally pick up some cultural concepts through their curriculum. It takes some research, investigation, and even experience. But there are ways to bridge the gap before amassing that experience.
First, work on your patience and calmness. Americans tend to have the international reputation of being loud and domineering. Cultural connections in unfamiliar territories require a willingness to listen and observe your colleagues, not wait for chances to interject your own opinion. Work on being present in the moment to really soak up all there is to learn in this particular interaction. Talk more softly. And regulate your breathing to lessen the possibility that you will revert to your ingrained conversational style.
Finally, conduct some research, both before your interactions and while you are in the assignment. How does this particular culture view eating with a group? Religion? Seniority? Entertainment? These are all questions that can be answered either through a simple Internet search or by asking colleagues who already have experience with the target culture. Cultural faux pas seem funny, but some of them can have a lasting effect on a potential client or new colleague.