When working on a cross-cultural basis, cultural awareness training often isn’t enough says Andy Molinsky. Just as with many things in life, simply learning about the differences between your own culture and a foreign one does not immediately enable you to behave like the locals do.
Adapting to a new culture can be quite a challenge and often feels unnatural. Many people have experienced this when living, studying or working abroad. Many authors have noticed this problem – you could fill an entire library with the number of books written on the subject of cultural differences. Knowledge about these differences isn’t enough, however - Molinsky believes global dexterity, or being able to adapt your behaviour to cultural differences, is even more important.
Molinsky believes global dexterity is needed because knowledge about the appropriate behaviour and acting upon this knowledge are two very different things. Adapting to foreign culture can feel awkward or inauthentic, ‘And when you have such strong internal reactions to adapting cultural behavior, your external performance can suffer,’ says Molinsky. The behaviour that is expected of you in crucial situations, such as meetings or interviews, is usually the hardest to imitate.
Of course, Molinsky does not only want to make you aware of the difference between knowledge and action. He wants you to walk away from his article with a few pointers about handling yourself in foreign cultures.
He gives the following tips:
#1 Make behaviour your own: this doesn’t mean you should try to adapt to unnatural behaviour all in one go. Easing yourself into it might be the way to go. For example, when given a compliment in China, Molinsky advises you to mix the western pride and the eastern humility by saying ‘Thank you. I have been trying hard to learn, but my Chinese is still very poor.’
#2 Call in a cultural mentor: this is someone who can tell you if your planned adaptations are actually effective in the situations you will encounter. As situations can differ in every work environment, it is advisable to find someone that is familiar with the culture of the country, but with the culture of the industry you are working in as well.
#3 Assess internally how comfortable the alterations in your behaviour will be for you: if the adjustments make you feel uneasy, you won’t benefit from them in the long run as this will show through in your behaviour. And no matter what culture you are in, inauthentic behaviour will have no effect in any culture in the world.
#4 Develop a forgiveness strategy: making mistakes cannot be avoided – what you can avoid is being punished for them. If you are able to convince your conversation partners that you are trying to incorporate their culture into your own behaviour and that you respect their traditions, they will probably show empathy when you slip up.
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