Anyone thinking about working abroad for a multinational company will certainly face cultural differences. One should always keep in mind that other cultures may have customs unfamiliar to you. Have an open mind and be aware that just because the way of doing things seem peculiar, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Interculturality – What is it?
“Culture” is one of the most complex concepts of all times (inspired by the famous quote by Raymond Williams: “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”). And it’s not for nothing that we ask ourselves what “interculturality” means, if “culture” is already impossible to define.
To keep it simple, interculturality can be said to be any situation in which different cultural backgrounds converge. First and foremost, different backgrounds and opinions represent a huge enrichment to any society or team. Because people who socialize similarly have more in common, diverging backgrounds could also lead to cultural conflicts. This may happen for many reasons; difference in nationality, culture or way of life. These differences can only be interpreted correctly when people possess intercultural sensitivity and skills.
How do you gather intercultural skills?
A person has intercultural skills if they are able to recognize cultural backgrounds, interpret them correctly, and interact with them effectively. At the same time, intercultural skills are also culturally-specific and hence, there is no “right” way to develop them.
Emotional intelligence and experience with the other cultures are important, as are “basic” social competencies such as respect and empathy. A person who is not ready to accept the opinions of others will not be able to deal with a conflicting situation in an intercultural context, no matter how many intercultural courses they might have taken. Flexibility and one’s own comfort zone are key concepts here. Simply listening more attentively and refraining from making hasty judgments, as this previous blog post makes clear, can often defuse conflicts at the workplace, and not only intercultural ones.
Research in this field debates whether and how intercultural conflict can be analysed and to what extendt they can be distinguished from interpersonal ones. Both, intercultural and interpersonal communications require the following key skills:
- critical thinking
- ability to work in a team
- willingness to learn
Additionally, it is vital to have experience with the respective foreign culture. While customs and traditions are easy to learn and understand, deeply rooted moral concepts, assumptions, or social traumas are not.
Interculturality in the workplace
Geert Hofstede is one of the most influential scholars of interculturality. The Dutchman took on the task of defining various cultural dimensions, such as “power distance” (the degree of submissiveness toward superiors), “individualism” and “collectivism“, which relate to the social behaviour in the workplace. For example, some societies are more geared to allowing individuals to go their own way, while other societies have a strongly defined sense of unity, which decrees that the collective is more important than individual interests.
It is certainly possible to educate oneself to become more receptive to intercultural processes. You will also find that various institutions offer courses in the area of intercultural skills.