10 tips on how to develop self-awareness when working across cultures

Published on November 7th, 2020

How self-aware do you think you are?

Self-awareness is far more important than a guilty realization that you’re annoying people by walking around a crowded place, fixated on your phone, or making too much noise in a restaurant. It goes far deeper, whether you’re a student, in business, or working in a multicultural environment.

Self-awareness is critical if you are hoping to function in a cross-cultural environment. It relates to the way you understand yourself, your values and your own prejudices. It also means developing an understanding of how others react to you, whether that’s a client in Asia, a study partner from India, a colleague in Russia or an investor in California. Understanding your own reactions to situations and your own thought processes is crucial to becoming culturally adept. Master this and you can become more effective, more aware, more empathetic. Studies have shown that self-aware people are more compassionate, more positive and make better leaders.

Self-awareness means understanding that the prism through which you see the world is not the only prism. Your own points of reference may be completely different from those of a colleague but neither is right or wrong, just differently shaped. To succeed in a multicultural environment, it is essential to step out of your own way of seeing the world, stop jumping to instant conclusions about people and trying to see a situation through the perspective of others.

Here are a few pointers for the route to self-awareness when working across cultures:

1. Remember that there is a difference between understanding cultural etiquette and actual self-awareness. You can mimic other cultures and mirror their values in order to fit in but understanding your own response and what has shaped it is the real key to cultural intelligence.

2. Don’t just change the way you communicate across cultures on the surface. Sincerity is essential; if you are not committed to being more self-aware and compassionate, your body language and your tone will give you away, not to mention your lack of consistency.

3. Think about what’s below the surface of a culture. It is more important to understand the less obvious elements – the beliefs, values and thought processes. Look at your own automatic responses to other cultures, whether they’re based on your built-in ideas about age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or seniority. Why does this matter in a multicultural situation? Because if you understand your own values and prejudices, you will understand how and why you react the way you do to others.

4. A colleague from another culture replies to an email you sent out and you don’t like their tone. Ask yourself why. Perhaps your message was too brusque and you offended the person, or perhaps they are dodging the issue to save face. Stop to think about your unconscious reaction to the email. What is it about your culture that has led you to word the message the way you did in the first place, and then to react to the response?

5. Be brave and ask colleagues from different cultures for feedback on how they see you (not causing anybody to lose face, of course). You could start the safe way, with people you know and trust and who are likely to be kind, and possibly constructive. Tell them why you’re asking. Give them a chance to be diplomatic if they are trying to pluck up the courage to tell you something negative, for example, “You’re very impatient” or “You only talk about yourself.” Asking for feedback demonstrates to others that you are willing to improve yourself, and learn. Most people are flattered to be asked. As a leader, giving the message that you don’t consider yourself perfect is a positive.

6. Learn to tailor your response to situations in order to present the best side of yourself at all times. For example, if you are inclined to interrupt people, work on being a better listener. If you tend to over-share, hold it back in business situations and focus on coming across as compassionate and friendly instead, if the situation merits this. If you have a tendency towards anger, work on developing rational thoughts instead. All of this takes practice.

7. Work out your own behaviour patterns and triggers. For example, do you always say ‘yes’ for fear of upsetting a colleague and then end up resentful and having to do things you don’t want to?

8. Recognize and admit to mistakes. Most people are forgiving if someone confesses to a mistake, especially if they have clearly learned from it and used it as a way of moving forward.

9. What happens when individuals are not self-aware? They may not understand their own thought processes, which could be distorted by emotion. They may not be able to identify their own weaknesses and strengths. They will not be aware of the impact their behaviour has on others, and the damage this could be doing to a relationship. They may have reached positions of seniority or power, but may not necessarily command respect, or be considered likeable or approachable.

10. So why make the effort? Because if you are more self-aware, and therefore multi-culturally aware, you will have better relationships. You will understand what creates harmony in a group, and know why people react to situations the way they do. You will be able to challenge your own prejudices. Living in a multicultural world will be fulfilling, rather than frustrating.


Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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