The Importance of Understanding Cultural Differences
By Andrew Woodcock, TVG Account Executive
There’s a phrase in Russian that closely corresponds to one in English: “mir tyesen.” Word for word, this phrase means “the world is tight,” but the base meaning is closer to our phrase “it’s a small world.” Modern communication technology is bringing the world closer every day.
Today, it’s just as easy to talk to a colleague in China as it is to talk to a colleague who just left the office for lunch. However, that doesn’t mean that your interactions with the Chinese colleague should be the same as with your American colleague. Culture and national identity are alive and well, and should be taken into account whenever you interact with someone from a different background than your own.
Whether you’re traveling to a different country for business or have just hired a diverse team of skilled workers around the world, you must always be prepared to encounter and overcome cultural differences and language barriers. Here are a couple of tips on how to help bridge the gap between cultures and make for a more comfortable and diverse workplace environment.
Read up on the culture you’ll be encountering
Every country in the world, old or new, has a rich and storied history. They celebrate their own holidays, cook national dishes, listen to their own styles of music and wear clothes appropriate for their culture. Take some time to Google the history, art and customs of the country you’ll be visiting. Not only will it be personally enriching, but it will also give you a way to connect with the local people. Showing off your knowledge of the local customs and history will make those around you realize you truly care about their culture, and aren’t just visiting for business and cool Instagram photos.
Learn the language
Languages are hard to learn. You spent years in grade school learning all the grammar and intricacies of English. Why spend more time learning a whole new language—especially when so much of the world speaks English already? Well, the fact that almost everyone can already speak English makes learning a foreign language all the more impressive. Even if you can only recite a couple key phrases, it shows that you‘re making the effort to bridge the cultural gap. Rather than your colleague reaching out to you by speaking English, the two of you are meeting in the middle as equals.
Unfortunately, no matter how much you research a country or how well you know the language, there will always be some culture shock and confusion. “False friends” may cause confusion and frustration. These are words that sound the same in two languages, but have different or even opposite meanings (for example, if you go to Russia and ask if there are any “preservatives” in your food, you’re asking if there are any contraceptives in it). Words, actions or gestures that are not offensive to us can be very offensive to someone from another culture, and vice versa. When this happens, it is important to stay patient and be accommodating. Working through these frustrations together will lead to a smarter and stronger bond between you and your colleagues.
Keep an open mind
When I learn a new language, or study the history of a culture I’m unfamiliar with, I think of it as exploring a new world. There are so many things that make each culture unique. You have to be open to trying and learning new things in order to work smoothly with a diverse team. Always try to think about how they see things from their perspective; doing so will give you insight on their corner of the world.
All of this being said, there are so many similarities between people of all nations. We all laugh at the same physical comedy, groan when we have to clean up our pets’ messes, and cry when we lose a loved one. After all, we are all human.