There’s no question that communicating across cultures can be challenging — and at times even overwhelming. But it also can be a tremendous learning opportunity. Here are three key tips for doing it more successfully in the coming year.
Tip #1: Learn about cultural differences… but don’t become obsessed with them.
Cultural differences are important. There is no doubt. In the United States, for example, we typically value directness. We admire straight shooters, tell people to “stop beating around the bush” or “get to the point,” and don’t expect to read between the lines. But in other cultures, such as China or Japan or Korea, people tend to be much more careful with the way that they communicate, especially when it comes to information that could be potentially “face threatening.” There are a myriad of ways that cultures are different and it’s important to be aware of them. But don’t become overly fixated on differences, because in the end, the way you build relationships across cultures is by focusing on similarities (that you and your colleague are both parents, or both like football or enjoy Japanese food), rather than differences. So, have cultural differences as one tool in your repertoire, but complement it with an equally careful look at similarities.
Tip #2: Be willing to step outside your cultural comfort zone
Knowledge of differences is one thing, but to be successful, we often need to be able to adapt and adjust our behavior in light of these differences. For example, you might know in theory that you need to promote yourself more than you’d typically feel comfortable with at a networking event in the United States, but the real trick is taking that knowledge and translating it into actual behavior. This of course means acting outside your comfort zone, which is hard for many of us. But when you’re operating globally, or even with people from other cultures but on your own home turf, it’s critical to start working on this critical skill of “global dexterity” – the ability to adapt your own behavior, when necessary, to meet different sets of expectations, but without losing yourself in the process.
Tip #3: Develop a practice routine
The next step is make these initial changes stick: to make them feel like they are second nature; to develop a comfort level with actually using this behavior in real situations. In sports, people use the term muscle memory to describe the way a movement or action that initially requires analysis and concentration becomes instinctive through practice and repetition. The goal here is to achieve the same level of fluency for your new cultural behavior. So go off and practice. In theater, rehearsal often takes place in a three-step sequence. Actors initially become familiar with their roles by reading the script and getting a feel for the characters they will be playing. Next, they experiment with their roles and adjust how they perform them in simulated practice sessions with others on stage—the rehearsal. Finally, the actors perform in front of a live audience during a practice run—the dress rehearsal. These three stages of familiarization, basic rehearsal, and dress rehearsal enable actors to learn about, customize, and eventually internalize the role that they are called upon to perform. You can use this same system when learning to adapt behavior across cultures. Learn the new cultural script, become familiar with your role, tweak it a bit so it fits, and go off and practice!
No one ever said that working, living, or studying in a foreign culture is easy. But it’s also not rocket science. Using the tools here along with your own ingenuity, motivation, and courage, you can learn to adapt your own behavior across cultures on your own terms. And in this new year, I hope you will take the plunge.
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.