Cross Cultural awareness training is now commonplace across a wide range of sectors. It can be defined as training that increases one’s intercultural competence. It can improve communication across cultures by demonstrating consideration for others’ needs and fulfilment of one’s own satisfactions. As a leader in today’s globalised world, you will recognise the power of effective communication when it comes to successful cross cultural interactions.
The purpose is well-intentioned: to improve cross- cultural encounters by efficiently and effectively collaborating with colleagues, clients and other stakeholders around the world. Maximised collaboration will in turn impact the success and profitability of your business. Getting it wrong will cost in time, resource allocation and inevitably profitability.
New Business Landscape, New Rhetoric
More than ever before and arguably since the Covid 19 pandemic, we see leaders of corporate global organisations use language that was once unimaginable in the business world, for example; decency, empathy and care. Establishing policy around inclusivity & diversity now sits at the top of Board agendas, no doubt triggered by recent global events in which racism and anti-racism are being grappled with in an unparalleled way. This shift in business rhetoric puts humans at the centre of leadership and I’d like to take a moment or two to reflect on that here. I am particularly interested in how this global shift around values and purpose may impact the world of Cross-Cultural awareness training. Intuitively, one might expect the demand for such training to be greater than ever before. Here, I argue that Cross cultural awareness training in its current form needs to align with the new global shift in which humans and their unique individuality are centre stage. Awareness training that focuses on who we are under the singular light of our country of origin or ethnicity is no longer fit for purpose in this new landscape.
Having been an ESL teacher spanning a decade in both Milan and London and as a facilitator of global leadership workshops today, I argue that these sessions are in danger of giving an overgeneralised, simplified or impractical ‘rules’ of interaction. These ‘rules’ can either cause participants of the training to hesitate over the most basic of interactions for fear of ‘getting it wrong’ or these rules put culture centre stage in interactions when they need not do so. Such rules can actually widen the gap of connection and understanding across cultures. Instead, these courses ought to have leaders shift into the mode of recognising difference with curiosity, flexibility and care as principles to navigate the unknown territory of a new culture.
My Experience in India
As a second generation Indian born and raised in Belfast, I may be particularly sensitive to matters of cross-cultural awareness. In preparing to write this article I was reminded of a work trip to New Delhi. We had managed to find time on our last night in the city to attend a gathering at a potential new client’s home. Later in the evening, on the lit-up terrace, lychee cocktail in hand and amongst a group of guests, I found myself admiring strings of bells around the door frames. One of the group, a close friend of the host, called her over and asked where in the city she had purchased the bells. To my surprise, the host quickly offered up a set of the bells and insisted I take them back to England with me. I suddenly found myself pink faced, more British than I’d ever felt in my life and stumbling to explain that I had merely been admiring them from afar. I went back to the hotel that evening with a jangling string of bells in hand and sheepishly, but more quietly, protesting my discomfort at taking the host’s bells home!
Skewed Cross Cultural Awareness Rules
On later reflection, I was reminded of the tropes rolled out in a cross-cultural awareness class I’d taken in high school around avoiding cultural embarrassment on business trips- ‘one must not admire an object in the home of a middle Eastern person as it would be likely that the object would be gifted to you’. I remember now how the statement caused our class to collapse in giggles at the strangeness of this proclaimed custom. Today, as an adult, I cannot help but wonder how and by who these rules are established, their accuracy beyond the subjectivity of the writer of the rules and the impact on those absorbing them. I also question whose embarrassment the advice was intended to avoid! Whilst I had found myself embarrassed in that encounter, my host had not been. She seemed rather pleased to be able to make an offering to her guest, arguably as a way of connecting with me.
Learn their Language
The ultimate in being a human-centred leader of course, is to ‘meet them on their own turf’ by actually learning to speak the language of one’s interlocuter! Having some level of linguistic fluency is essential for healthy dynamics when working cross culturally. We should stop holding the lazy expectation that others will be able to converse easily in English. The gains of doing so can be limitless when your counterpart is assured of your commitment to their culture by learning their language.
My Do’s and Don’ts of Cross Cultural Awareness Training
DON’T: Attend a one stop shop in which participants receive a download of information by a ‘chalk and talk’ facilitator.
Cross Cultural awareness training cannot provide meaningful information in a 2-hour session. Any training organisation purporting this should be approached with caution. A chalk and talk facilitator may end up transferring surface-level information made up of cultural stereotypes. These can run the risk of being insincere and patronizing.
DO: Provide an experienced facilitator who is open to dialogue as this will allow for deeper exploration of the key themes.
Learning to be in another culture requires more than a download of information and instead should enlist the thinking and experience of attendees in order that a range of insights can be brought into the space. An experienced facilitator can maximise deeper exploration of the key themes by opening up dialogue to challenge any of their own preconceived theories or of the participants. This ought to happen over a series of sessions in order to pause, reflect and bring real life examples back to the session.
DON’T: Make it all about Culture
Care must be taken in these sessions to avoid placing cultural issues at the centre of all colleague, client & stakeholder interactions. The tendency can be a ‘cultural-first’ mentality, meaning that any behaviour or misunderstanding can be perceived as culturally- oriented when it may not be. Holding pre-conceived notions of an individual’s behaviour based on their cultural background may end up establishing various behaviours as culturally normative when in fact they are induced by a whole host of interpersonal, environmental matters or other intersecting influences on attitudes, behaviours and communication styles.
DO: Remember that ‘Peoples is peoples’
We must keep at the forefront of our minds that we are made up of much more than our culture of our countries of origin or our ethnicities despite what some cultural awareness training (or the world) might have us believe.
DON’T: Provide divisive thinking
All too often the training will place its focus on difference between cultural groups and such specificity of difference can create a rod for our backs as we will inevitably make errors when blanket rules about ‘the French’ just do not apply!
DO: Focus on questions to gather data that will allow for commonality to be found
More emphasis ought to be focused on how business leaders can look for commonality with their counterparts in other countries. Connecting on a level that advocates curiosity to learn about the other as well as a flexibility of approach should always hold one in good stead when navigating new territories. Cross- Cultural awareness training should only offer specific cultural insight that can be held lightly. Asking in the moment questions of your counterpart in another country will allow you to gather data about that person. These questions will pave the way for commonality to be found between you both.
I advocate the ‘guiding principle’ approach to cultural awareness training rather than the ‘in the weeds’ specificity about different cultures preferences in given situations. But there is, of course, merit to gathering all the intel one can prior to working with people of another culture. Consequently, I encourage keeping one eye in this direction. The other eye should be on firmly on curiosity, commonality, flexibility and the power of questions as approaches that cultural awareness training can and should bring to the fore if this training is to be aligned with the human centred leadership of the new global business landscape of 2021.
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Written by Sarika Sabherwal, PCA global