In the past number of years, I've been studying how international communication is becoming more and more crucial to the success of any business. It's fascinating to what degree understanding culture matters when working internationally.
Having started my career in language training, today I am convinced that although learning how to speak another language is absolutely vital to enhance communication, it is impossible to isolate learning a language without learning about the cultural aspect of the people who you will be working with.
So as a short immersion, here are some basics on intercultural communication.
Cultural Etiquette: This means the manners and behaviours that are expected in a given situation . For example, as an Irish person in Germany, I find it hard to get used to the fact that it is perfectly acceptable to blow your nose in public. I also had to learn to call people by their surname, and use the polite form of 'Sie' when meeting new people. The more we understand the what the cultural norm is or isn't in different cultures, the easier it is to understand behaviours and avoid making a faux pas when working internationally.
lCultural Stereotypes: This is probably where cultural understanding begins. We often start out with our own beliefs about others, their attitudes & behaviors. Stereotyping is when we paint a whole culture with one brush and often use it for a superficial picture of a nation. Being Irish people often expect me to be able to drink them under the table whilst singing ballads and playing the harp. They are usually disappointed that I don't have red hair and freckles. Those who have never visited the massive financial services centre in Dublin, or any of the large American corporations with headquarters in Ireland, are apt to believe me when I tell them that we travel by donkey, or pony and trap. Likewise the Germans all wear Lederhosen and drink mighty large krugs of beer, the French go around on bicycles wearing stripey t-shirts, berets and carrying onions .
It can get a bit more serious than that though. There are generalizations - the Germans are boring, serious, particular. The Irish are late and unorganized, etc... There is a great danger in stereotyping without thinking. Of course it can be good to have some general characteristics, and we all make assumptions to a degree. As long as you are prepared to let your assumptions prove you wrong, it can be a first step.
lEthnocentrism: Means looking at the world from a perspective shaped by our own culture . In other words, we assume that our cultural habits are the norm, the axis upon which the world turns, and we work from there. Other countries should learn to do it our way, or at least understand that they have it wrong. I remember the first time I went to China, over 20 years ago, having an ethnocentric killing moment whilst standing in the middle of a crowded street and realizing that actually, given the population of the world, Chinese people represented the 'norm' with regards to what a human being looks like. It was me, long nosed whitey, that was quite the exotic animal.
What I think is important regarding ethnocentrism, is to try and understand when a person comes from a very different cultural background that integration is not about teaching him or her to be like us, but rather, by accepting that they are different, that we are all different in various aspects, and respecting the difference is the crux of integration.
lRelativism: Is doing exactly that. It is accepting that all cultures are good in their own way. Having cultural sensitivity is a really helpful tool that will advance your communication skills and protect you from misunderstandings. In my case, having spent so many years going back and forth from Ireland to Germany, I have had to use relativism in order not to go completely nuts. In my case, I tend to cherry pick between the two cultures. I love being highly organised whilst I try to use my Irishness as an excuse for being late.
To become totally relativist regarding culture is extremely difficult, but remembering that the person or people you are dealing with also believe that their culture is the centre of all reality is a great start.
And then there's humour. It just doesn't translate. Besides, it's advised that you should never tell a joke in business that is not politically correct. But are there any politically correct jokes that are funny?
Let's end with an attempt...