The first thing most of us do when working with people from a new culture is to learn about differences. And there are very sensible reasons to do so. It helps you avoid cultural faux pas. For example, if your Korean employee will likely be embarrassed if you praise him in public, it would be good to know that ahead of time so you can anticipate his reaction and alter your own behavior plan. Similarly, if you know that an American employer expects you to look her in the eye, give a firm handshake, and speak positively about yourself, it’s important for you to know that as well, even if those very same behaviors would be considered inappropriate where you come from. Focusing on cultural differences also helps you learn to correctly interpret and make sense of the behavior of others.
But focusing on differences alone can have its downsides. For one thing, there’s a decent chance you’ll be wrong. The Italian employee you anticipate being late for meetings turns out to be the most punctual person on your team, and the Asian consultant you just hired and anticipated having to mentor about participating in meetings actually ends up being the most outgoing and assertive person in the room.
Focusing on differences can also be quite mentally taxing. Think about it: You walk into a room and your mind races with all the different cultural differences you need to remember — that you’re not supposed to do X, Y, or Z and that your partners from another culture may be doing A, B, or C, and each of these behaviors has a specific meaning in that culture that’s different from yours. It’s enough to make your head spin!
So, if you don’t focus on differences, what then can you do to be more effective across cultures? In our experience, an equally plausible and highly effective alternative technique is to focus on similarities — on what you have in common, instead of what you don’t. And this subtle twist in perspective can have some pretty powerful effects.
If you think about it, this is probably exactly how you establish connections and relationships in your own culture. You don’t approach a person thinking about all the potential ways you could be different; instead, you naturally gravitate to similarities, to finding things you might have in common to form the basis of a relationship. Although we tend to approach cross-cultural interactions quite differently, the same technique actually works just as well across cultures. When focused on similarities, you’re open to — and, in fact, looking for — a potential connection.
Perhaps it’s a hobby you share in common with a coworker, or maybe both of you at a business meeting abroad have families you’re trying to connect with through Skype. Maybe you’re both fans of football (European or American). You can discover these similarities in conversation, or even by picking up on things you notice — like pictures on a person’s desk, a coffee cup from a particular store you also like, or a passing remark someone makes about something you share in common. The possibilities are endless, but by focusing on similarities you have the power to create connections and build relationships that either supersede cultural differences or make them irrelevant.
Another advantage of this approach is that your counterpart is more likely to feel that you see them as an individual, not just as a cultural stereotype. As we said earlier, focusing on differences can lead you to overgeneralize or assume certain things about someone from another culture, which may or may not be true for the particular personyou’re interacting with. On the other hand, focusing on similarities means you are attuned to the particularities of the specific person you are interacting with. This is more likely to result in the other party feeling seen and heard for who they are, and can kick off a positive spiral of mutual openness and trust.
“But what if I embarrass myself or offend someone?” you may ask. After all, a major benefit of focusing on differences is that it can enable you to avoid cultural mistakes, and by shifting your focus to similarities, you may risk doing or saying something inappropriate. Making the connection with another individual may go against the grain of your personality — or your cultural background — and you may stumble along the way. Or you may find yourself as the cultural minority or with relatively little status or power, which can make it more challenging to take up this approach.
Although making mistakes is a valid concern, the good news is that your counterpart’s reaction to your cultural faux pas is likely to be much more forgiving when you have already built a rapport. By forging a connection based on similarities, you create an interpersonal environment that is psychologically safer for you and the other party. This means that even if you make a mistake, it is not immediately held against you, and you are more likely to be able to laugh it off, or even use it as an opportunity to learn more about one another’s culture. And if you can develop the courage and willingness to get past such barriers, you’ll be surprised at how effective it can be to look past the obvious differences and focus instead on the things we share.
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017). Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.
This piece was co-authored with Sujin Jang, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. Sujin’s research focuses on global teams and the challenges of working across cultures.
The piece originally appeared at Harvard Business Review.