As a kid I grew up moving around a bit. As an adult I’ve had the privilege to travel to many countries and experience a multitude of cultures. Because of this, I believe I’ve learned a few tools that help me navigate multicultural settings. I like to think that I’ve developed, and continue to cultivate, a set of “Cultural Antennae” which help me to recognize when I am about to make (and then hopefully avoid) a wrong step in a foreign cultural setting.
Here are a few of the things I remind myself when engaging in intercultural communication.
- Listen much before speaking. It is easy to be nervous in any social setting. This can be true even more so in multicultural encounters. For some, nervousness translates into talkativeness. Try to calm yourself (slow, deep breaths really do help), focus and engage in active listening, before opening your mouth. Active listening entails, among other things: making eye contact, exhibiting positive body language, paraphrasing what you have heard to show the other that you have understood what they have said and asking clarifying questions.
- Withhold judgment/make tentative judgments and be willing to refine them. I can’t emphasize this enough. It is easy to believe that because I have always done something in a certain way that that is the only or best way of doing things. As the old adage goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat. That being said, I’m not a relativist. I do believe that some ethno/cultural/religious practices are wrong. For instance, I believe practices such as infanticide, still practiced among some aboriginal groups in the Amazonas, or female genital mutilation, should be stopped.
- Smiling sends out positive vibes. I’m not sure I have any empirical data to back this one up, but I definitely have experienced it.
- Say, “I’m sorry” or admit when you’ve made a mistake. One thing I’ve observed on numerous occasions is people who say or do something that is clearly not in line with the local norms, yet are too stubborn to admit they’ve screwed up.
- Be patient and take time to drink tea (https://edbrownweb.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/drinking-tea-in-the-city-of-god/). Take time to get to know the other. In business settings it can be easy to want to get to the bottom line as soon as possible. My experience is that this tactic is often counter-productive. Rather taking time to share a meal and/or purposely asking about the others family; spouse and children as well as mother and father is a much better way to achieve our common goals.
- Be humble. Other cultures may address issues in ways other than what you are used to. Make an effort to understand rather than pushing your way of doing things.
- Expect to learn. Having an attitude of positive expectation and of desire to learn what you can from the other shines through to the other and sends positive signals.
While these few reminders to myself are not absolute, nor is this an exhaustive list, I have found them to be helpful :-).