Bridging cultural gaps

2 min read
First Published: 
Jul 2007

Key Learnings contained in this article:

There is an increasing need for all of us to develop strategies for dealing with different cultures as business becomes more international and cross communication among different disciplines increases.

Liaising with colleagues from different cultures and backgrounds can become a large part of many jobs and is often a demanding task – working inside multi-cultural teams needs skill and sensitivity. Very likely there are simple language barriers, different communication styles and contrasting etiquettes. For example, in many Eastern cultures it’s polite to copy executives in on all emails, while in the US this might be viewed as irritating because it creates clutter.

The first step in bridging cultural gaps is to understand ourselves; none of us are neutral observers, we all have ingrained prejudices and preconceptions of our own. This is part of the influence of our own culture. We should try to identify and be aware of what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour; what are our values? How do we see the world? What kind of behaviours and preconceptions in social and business settings do we regard as the norm?

Next, we need to attempt to understand the factors that have determined what our counterparts in different countries regard as the norm, from factual to attitudinal to behavioural (for example, certain particular economic factors will influence attitudes and this will shape the behaviour of the culture). This demands careful analysis – it can help to think about the attitudes which you and others are likely to have to factors such as:

  • time (e.g. how important is punctuality and sticking to deadlines?);
  • truth/openness (e.g. what are the cultural attitudes towards honesty, right and wrong?);
  • relationships (e.g. how are other people regarded, such as those who are older or senior, younger or junior etc?);
  • communication (e.g. are there particular etiquettes, does the culture demand frankness or the converse?)

Whilst all of us will see these factors in different ways to some extent, people from the same cultural backgrounds generally exhibit similarities in their cultural assumptions and attitudes.

The third step is to know how we are seen by others and the last is to learn to adapt, whilst remaining true to our own values.

It really does help if we make a conscious, non-patronising effort to alter our communication styles if we are to work effectively with people from other cultures. Since English is now the international language, thinking about how we can adapt our native tongue to help non-English speaking colleagues can be a great way to start.

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Clare Gurton
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