Working in a team can be difficult enough as it is, miscommunication and misunderstandings are commonplace. With different cultures added to the mix, there are far more opportunities for conflict.
Not all cultures derive the same meaning from messages and communication, both verbal and non-verbal. This is why we must always consider what the other person might interpret from our interactions. A person’s culture has a huge impact on their identity, certain learned behaviours are passed on by family members and the various communities that you form part of.
Culture can be categorised in many different ways, one of the most fundamental ways to breakdown culture is by identifying between a collectivistic and individualistic culture.
Collectivistic cultures are very hierarchical, they strive for harmony with others and seek to feel like they belong. Generations of families within collectivist cultures tend to live together and/or support one another.
Individualistic cultures view relationships as optional and something that has a personal gain. Members of individualistic cultures tend to be more independent, communication is more direct and people tend to be more competitive.
Customs are traditional ways of doing things within a specific culture. Certain customs are only relevant at specific times or events, for example, each culture has a variety of wedding customs. Anything from gestures to different forms of behaviour can become customary if it is practiced often enough.
Even simple things like the way we dress can often be culturally motivated. Now we’re not talking full on cultural attire here, even just covering up more skin than normal, wearing religious headwear, a religious bracelet or a necklace with a cultural symbol on it. In many cultures the dress code is divided, women are expected to dress one way while men are expected to dress another. Appearance is a choice to some extent, but for some, it is not as flexible.
Have you ever had conflict over the subject of time? Are your colleagues too relaxed with time for your liking? Are they too obsessed with being on time and sticking to a schedule? This might not be entirely our fault – the concept of time is treated differently across all cultures. It might be second nature for you to want to be consistently on time, but the truth is some cultures give time more freely and are more relaxed with time. Meaning that they might not be exactly on time all the time, on the other hand, they won’t mind being stood up for five or ten minutes if they are waiting on you. These are small considerations that can make your life a little bit easier when dealing with members of other cultures.
Body language is a major consideration in terms of non-verbal communication, this is an area where misunderstandings are very frequent. Everything from your movement to your use of space (proximity) is considered to be body language. Let’s take eye contact for example; did you know that some cultures find it provocative or aggressive? On the other hand, some cultures view eye contact as respectful and feel that strong eye contact is necessary for interpersonal communication.
Having such a diverse workforce can cause some friction along the way, but it is important to remember that each individual brings their own unique skills and strengths to the party. The trick is learning to bear cultural considerations in mind. Better understanding your colleagues’ culture can help to minimise potential conflict or even isolation that stems from misunderstandings.