Knowing what you do not know is a sign of wisdom, according to Greek philosopher Socrates. A good example of this is intercultural wisdom, which can be defined as knowing what you do not know about the values, behavior and communication styles of people from other cultures. Working with clients from a variety of intercultural business contexts has shown me a consistent pattern of how cultural differences are perceived. Does the next paragraph describe how you approach the perception of cultural differences?
You assume that people from other cultures are fundamentally the same as you are, except they speak a different language and have different customs. You have spent years learning the vocabulary and grammar of English, since that’s now the language of international business, so that you can communicate across cultures. You have also learned some of the customs of other cultures. For example, when to shake hands, how to offer your business card, what topics of conversation are taboo in the other culture, and so on. In making all these efforts I imagine your sincere intention is that you do not want to say or do something that would be considered inappropriate by people from another culture. And you may expect people from other cultures to do the same for you.
The previous paragraph is often what is meant when we say that we know how to adapt to another culture. Using that measure, how do you rate your adaptation skills? Most people are fairly satisfied with themselves, when using this standard. However, as many of my clients have realized, it’s simply not enough. While it is a good starting point, more is required for you to be able to adapt to the kinds of communication challenges that arise within intercultural business contexts. When cultures mix, conflicting values, combined with a lack of awareness of that, soon become the most significant challenge.
Cultural Values Are Not As Clear As We Believe They Are
In the field of cultural values there are countless theories and models based on extensive studies, some of which are decades old, categorizing the values of different cultures. Conceptually speaking, this is an interesting voyage of discovery. However, when values clash, who has the “right” ones? This is what I see repeatedly as the one of the fundamental causes of communication problems that my clients experience. Why? Because we automatically assume that our values are the “right” ones, so we are not willing to adapt. And often, neither is the other person, which results in a stalemate.
The participants were members of a team that had been working together for ten months. At one point during the workshop there was a heated debate about how each person’s version of politeness was the “right” one. Before long they were accusing each other of having the “wrong” version of politeness. They all realized by the end of the discussion that this was an issue that had been simmering under the surface since the creation of the team. Not only had they never discussed this, they hadn’t even been aware that it had been creating daily tension between them.
The Benefits of Increased Intercultural Insight
In my follow up with the team’s manager a few weeks later, he reported that they were more relaxed and tolerant of each other since the workshop. I was not surprised, because they had learned practical communication techniques during the workshop that they could confidently apply back at work. However, I am convinced that new techniques alone aren’t enough without increased insight about oneself and others. We often can’t see our own cultural values and how they determine how we communicate and behave. Knowing that we have these cultural blind spots about ourselves and others is the real road that leads to intercultural wisdom. There will always be many things that we don’t know about other cultures. And this is true no matter how long we live within them or work with people from cultures outside our own. So assuming that we know it all will result in the kind of issues I explored with this team.
Another interesting thing to me about this particular group was that most of them had a spouse from another culture. They were also teaching their children to speak several languages simultaneously. Even though their children were being schooled in France, they were also acquiring a unique blend of different cultural values and communication styles at home. Some of the participants told me that as a result of the workshop, not only did they have increased insight at work but in their home lives as well.
This story is representative of global trends: a multicultural team working in English as a foreign language within a multinational company with a head office in another country, and with team members having a multicultural family life. To effectively handle the challenges of these unique mixtures, we all need skills that go beyond just speaking a language well. To exercise intercultural wisdom, each of us also needs to acquire more communication skills in general and more intercultural communication skills in particular, while increasing our intercultural insight.