What are the ways in which you can increase cultural awareness?

Published on May 13th, 2022

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Working in cross-cultural teams is part of the modern workplace. Whether you are part of a global team, work with international customers or even if you have people from other cultural backgrounds in your own team – cross-cultural working is the new normal. It’s, therefore, crucial to develop the right competencies in order to learn about your own values and biases and how to adapt and respond to different cross-cultural perspectives.

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Functioning in a team consisting of people from different backgrounds takes specific skills, knowledge and attitudes. Cross-cultural awareness training can guide you through this learning process and equip you with strategies to overcome potential cultural barriers in the workplace. Here is some general advice that can increase your own and your team’s cultural awareness, even before you take part in cultural awareness training.

Reflect on your own cultural influences

The goal of increasing your cultural awareness is to ensure communication in a multicultural work setting. Doing business in this manner means establishing common ground between different cultures, communities, and groups while promoting understanding and interaction. However, you must first understand your own influences before learning about others. This is especially important if you have a managing and leadership role, as your cultural influences can shape organizational norms and standards. 

People usually relate one culture to a nation, but that can lead to misunderstandings as you can overlook cultural differences within one nation and overstate differences between countries. Our cultural identities are linked to our nationality, but there are moral, religious, ethnic and political influences as well. Understanding differences in social and cultural norms based on gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, age and other affiliations can provide you with new perspectives.

Think about the working culture from your own experience so far, asking yourself detailed questions about your assumptions of what is normal. How does communication work? What kind of leadership style is preferred? Do people work better with individual goals or with team goals? Are there dominant stereotypes for specific groups?  This reflection will help you spot the differences and create common ground with people from other cultural backgrounds while promoting cultural diversity and inclusion.

Learn and experience different cultures 

Knowing about a culture is not enough. It is also essential to learn to value and understand it. The best way to do this is to get to know your business partners or teammates. Be curious about their social norms, habits and perspectives. Talk about your own work style preferences and initiate dialogue. Informal communication is very important to enable effective teamworking: it builds the trust necessary for effective communication.

The ultimate goal of this exchange is to create a collaborative environment that enables creativity and cooperation. Diversity in the workplace is a benefit if you manage it competently. Different experiences, expertise and knowledge of local contexts can boost problem solving and lead to greater productivity. Knowing about different cultures is the first step to building awareness and understanding. 

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Have in mind language barriers and non-verbal communication

Communication is more than just words spoken. Even if we are all speaking one language, comprehending different dialects and understanding different levels of proficiency are always a challenge at the workplace. Pay attention to your tone, speed of talking and gestures. Don’t shy away from questions – it’s always good to check your understanding when you are uncertain.

Cultural influences are especially impactful in non-verbal communication. In a study on “Non-verbal barriers to effective intercultural communication”,  researchers found that “…without proper meaning of body language, misunderstanding and misinterpretation often prevail between cultures because what is appropriate behavior for one culture can be inappropriate in another”.

For example, in some cultures, personal space is very valued, while in other cultures, people are quite assertive. The same gestures can have opposite meanings – a handshake could mean a done deal in one context and culture, while in another it is a casual sign of politeness. 

Learning about these cultural aspects will help you mitigate misunderstandings and potential conflicts or offensive situations between team members or partners from different backgrounds. 

Recognize stereotypes and address them in a productive manner

Think about dominant stereotypes regarding different groups and their working or lifestyle habits. Which cultures do people usually perceive as “lazy”, “hard-working” or “distant” and why is this so? Not all stereotypes have negative connotations – like the notion that German culture values discipline and punctuality, and Spanish culture is easy-going. One researcher, in a paper about “Stereotypes and Prejudice in the Perception of the “Other” ”, describes stereotypes as primarily having a “negative character, being defined as a negative generalization used by the in-group (us) regarding the out-group (them)”.

Nevertheless, these stereotypes are simplifications that can be limiting in the workplace and can cause prejudice or discrimination. This can potentially lead to selective perception and misconceptions. Recognizing these patterns increases the chances for effective communication with people who are culturally different. Also, overcoming prejudice will help you establish connections that can open doors for new business developments.

In conclusion, professional communication is greatly influenced by cultural norms. We interpret all information together with explicit and implicit cultural assumptions based on our own unique previous experiences. The mixture of cultures in the workplace, dominant and less prevalent ones, shapes the organizational culture of any company or project team. Raising cultural awareness will help develop your communication competences, as well as provide insight for inclusive organizational and project development.

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