Having a toolkit of cross-cultural skills, or in other words being intercultural competent, is crucial in helping us land well in a new country, work as part of a multicultural team or negotiate a new contract with partners from the other side of the world. Intercultural skills enable us to interpret unfamiliar situations, manage multiple perspectives and bring people separated by time, distance and values closer together. But intercultural skills are important not only for expatriates and international business travellers; they also help us to work more effectively in any unfamiliar context and to collaborate better with people who are ‘not like us’.
We may not be travelling for the time being, but we are expected to work in new ways, with fewer resources. Working at a distance means we’re not always mindful of the challenges facing our colleagues and partners or the impact of lockdown on their lives.
Having the self-awareness to know how you come across, the ability to think and behave appropriately to the context and the skills to communicate effectively in a wide range of contexts are vital attributes for these uncertain times. Here are some of the components of intercultural competence that are in demand for working through challenging times.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back when times are tough – to be able to draw on the resources and strategies that will support you through stressful times. Experiencing culture shock when moving to a new country but also working in new and unfamiliar ways, joining a new team you’ve never met or having to multitask like never before are all situations that require the resilience to manage our emotions, stay positive and focus on what’s important.
Being curious helps to deepen our knowledge of the world. Curiosity also helps us to appreciate and empathise with people who are different to us. We can learn from other perspectives and we can also learn more about ourselves if we question our own feelings and motivations. This all enables us to become better relationship-builders, problem-solvers and decision-makers.
Listening actively requires us to pay full attention to what’s being said and also to focus on what is not said, to ‘read the air’ as they say in Japan. Listening is the most powerful communication tool we can develop; by listening actively we avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication, but we also build rapport and demonstrate that we value the speaker and their ideas.
Perhaps one of the hardest and most needed intercultural skills is the ability to suspend judgement and avoid making assumptions. We tend to evaluate behaviours and opinions that are different to our own through the lens of our cultural and personal values and we can be quick to judge difference as ‘rude’ or ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. We can also be quick to evaluate a situation based on previous experience or incomplete knowledge. I might make the assumption that my new colleague is late to the meeting because that is typical behaviour in their country of origin. I then assume that they are unreliable without finding out that they have a family emergency and are late because their child needed to be taken to hospital. Working virtually, we lose many of the contextual clues that help us to understand the bigger picture.
Tolerance of uncertainty
Working in a unfamiliar setting we find that things are not the same as they were before. Perhaps we don’t share the same language and culture, the norms or ‘unwritten rules’ are different, now that it’s a ‘new normal’. We need to be able to navigate the uncertainty of how things work differently and to negotiate meaning when communication is more challenging than usual. And sometimes we just need to be with the discomfort of ambiguity. Most of us have a natural tendency to resist change and feel uncomfortable with ambiguity but learning to flex our behaviours and make pragmatic decisions is invaluable during uncertain times.
The good news is that these are skills that can be practised and developed over time and through coaching and training. Intercultural skills are like a set of muscles that grow stronger with exercise and that support each other according to where most strength is needed.