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Developing Cultural Sensitivity in Working with Other Cultures

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Cultural differences can be a challenge in an international workplace, but at the same time cultural diversity can also be fascinating, said Rachel Smets. At Positive Psychology in Practice 2019 she suggested we prepare ourselves when working with other cultures or moving abroad, and develop our cultural sensitivity by learning about new cultures as much as we can.

Smets stated that among the people she interviewed, including many digital nomads like herself, the one thing they all mentioned as a key ingredient to a successful move was "prepare well". She suggested to do research in advance:

Depending on your current situation, your research will be based on your goals, but let’s assume you’re a digital nomad and able to work from anywhere; you need to decide about your new destination, your house or other accommodation to rent or buy, the family that will join you or stay behind, your finances, the new language, but also, the required visa and paperwork. Adding to these basics, there are topics like pets, schools, vaccinations, insurance, health care etc...

We can learn about a new culture by doing research and reading about their habits, foods, festivals, language, history, etc. Smets mentioned that it doesn’t have to be complicated; just put in some effort to inform yourself:

As a digital worker, doing business with many different cultures and showing your knowledge about certain local culture customs will demonstrate an interest in their culture, which can be very advantageous in business.

Positive psychology can be applied to help people adjust to or deal with a culture that’s new to them; it is really the answer and solution in everything here, said Smets. The science is all about happiness, optimism, well-being, satisfaction, flow, and so on, and in the pursuit of "good feeling" this also relates to your interpersonal relations with other cultures.

How are you adjusting to others? How are you communicating with others? Maybe they use a different language, but there’s much more to communication than that, said Smets. In the Netherlands people are very direct, blunt and may come across as "rude" to those from another country where language is indirect, and the message must be understood through cues like body language, facial expressions, or eye contact.

Smets gave the example of how some Asian people say "yes", which can have five different meanings: "yes", "maybe," "I’ll try," "no," and "I’m not sure." She mentioned her video on deadlines across cultures, which provides examples and solutions to communicating across cultures.

Positive psychology can also be related to the "Golden Rule", as Smets explained:

We’re used to the golden rule, as in "Treat others like you would like to be treated," however, when it comes to cultural differences, the Golden Rule that is most effective is "Treat others the way THEY want to be treated". In essence, adjust to them, and harmony will be created.

"Working abroad has been a great experience in every country I’ve lived," said Smets. She mentioned that a challenge is always paperwork, such as all the tax systems, getting the utility contract done, work contracts, a visa if needed, internet at home, registrations in the new country, and the administration part is always a challenge, in some countries it being faster than others. Patience and persistence is the key solution here, Smets said.

Rachel Smets, author of Living Abroad Successfully, presented on how to take the "shock" out of culture shock at Positive Psychology in Practice 2019. InfoQ held an interview with her.

InfoQ: In your talk, you mentioned that cultural diversity can actually be fascinating. Can you give some examples?

Rachel Smets: Absolutely, I love observing other cultures; the different habits, or how people dress differently, eat different foods, and eat at different meal times. In the Netherlands people tend to eat dinner around 6pm, whereas in Spain, dinner is between 8.30 and 10.30pm.

When doing business with other cultures, greeting is the first thing you do; that’s why it’s important to greet in the correct manner and avoid an awkward moment. If you’re meeting face-to-face, make sure you observe people around you; do they shake hands, bow, hug, kiss? Then, copy them.

In business, the most common international way to greet is to shake hands, but in Asian countries this can differ; this is why observation and researching ahead of time (a quick Google search) can help you greatly.

If you are doing business online, I recommend looking up a few local words in order to say "Hello" in the local language of your business partner, colleague or client. You will notice how much they appreciate your effort.

InfoQ: What challenges did you have to deal with when traveling abroad?

Smets: Traveling abroad brings challenges as well as opportunities. When I travel to different countries, I’m on my own, so the usual challenges are having to carry everything alone, and when I need to use the toilet, I have to drag my hand luggage, trolley and jacquet with me. I have learned to travel light and be practical with what I carry.

Traveling solo, I receive two very frequent questions: about safety and loneliness. Safety is solved by picking destinations, accommodations and locations that are safe (of course, one never knows 100%). Loneliness is a frequent issue for many people, but I focus on all the benefits of being solo, such as meeting people easier, doing what I want, when I want and where I want. Here’s a video that says it all: the best reasons for traveling solo.

InfoQ: How can people work on their cultural sensitivity and get better at understanding cultural differences and working with people from different cultures?

Smets: According to research and studies from experts like Hofstede, Hall and Trompenaars, there are mainly two categories: relationship-oriented cultures and task-oriented cultures.

The former are based on the relationship or bond between different employees and business members. The goals and tasks are accomplished through relationships. You spend time building that relationship before you dive into the business. Japan, African and the Middle East are examples of relationship-oriented cultures.

Task-oriented cultures on the other hand are more focused on the information and technology needed to achieve maximum productivity. For example, the United States is a typical information-oriented culture, whereby business can be completed without knowing much about your business counterpart.

Also, talk to someone who’s familiar with living and moving abroad; you will learn a LOT.

If you’re working with other cultures, I recommend you take a course or workshop on cultural sensitivity. I usually spend half a day explaining basic culture dimensions giving practical examples in specific countries. This is enough to create cultural awareness, become open to the new, and certainly take the SHOCK out of the culture shock.

To summarize being culturally sensitive: don’t deny differences but rather accept them, recognize them, and cherish them.

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