How to bridge a cultural divide

Do you find yourself dealing with culturally complex situations? Giati Rabbani lays out three questions EAs can ask to help bridge cultural divides.

Whether you are supporting a leadership team that manages across geographical borders or working with a culturally diverse team at home, your ability to influence and collaborate with others is crucial to your success.

Cultural sensitivity is the differentiator between creating cultural cohesion or allowing diversity to divide. Research demonstrates that cultural intelligence may be the single greatest difference between thriving in the 21st-century world and becoming obsolete.  Forbes lists cultural intelligence amongst the top 10 most important skills every company will be looking for in 2020.

Understanding your cultural values is the first step towards developing cultural sensitivity. All of us have cultural preferences that are shaped in childhood. These are not good nor bad, or right or wrong, but rather determine the way we prefer to work and live.  By understanding your orientations, you can develop insights that help increase your interpersonal effectiveness and bridge gaps with people of different cultures.

Are you collaborative or expressive?

People who are cooperative will typically focus more on collaboration and establishing relationships before getting to the task at hand.  Someone with a competitive orientation will tend to focus on the task and seek individual recognition for achieving results.

Most western businesses are largely organised around a competitive orientation, it’s about survival of the fittest. This preference encourages a task focus.  In Confucian Asian countries such as China, business interactions can typically involve long lunches and multiple courses that don’t involve any business talk as the emphasis is on building the relationship first.

Consider how your team members demonstrate their preference and if this varies across cultures in your group.  Do some team members seek to establish rapport before getting to the task? Or do others have a more direct approach?

What is your communication style?

Consider how in Australia, it is culturally acceptable—in fact, expected—of individuals to express views in the workplace.  Discussion and debate and even explicit expression of disagreement are the norm. In contrast, rarely in Japan, India, and South Korea would an individual openly communicate a difference of opinion in a group setting—especially where seniors are present.  A convention of hierarchy holds strong in such cultures where leaders and elders within family, community, and business are held in high regard. The culture is one of promoting harmony and silence represents respect.

To obtain viewpoints from across a team, you may consider offering alternative ways for them to share information with you.  Scheduling a private conversation before or after a team meeting can solicit input that may otherwise not be presented if they are averse to direct conflict or staying quiet in respect of the formal hierarchy within a group.

How expressive are you?

Emotions vary across cultures—both in expression and meaning.  As we cross cultures and encounter emotional expression different from our own, we need to develop a deeper understanding of these emotional landscapes.

Consider how in Italy outward demonstration of passion and enthusiasm are the norm in the workplace. In Japan, for example, individuals are not emotionally expressive and can be extremely difficult to read. Their communication pattern is very indirect and far less verbose than that of Latin European or Latin American cultures. The Japanese do not gesture very much while speaking, their body language is largely restrained.

Interpreting true meaning can be challenging and calls for multiple open-ended questions to seek clarification. It is important to slow down, check in on your assumptions and clarify any visual gestures through open dialogue to avoid potential confusion.

Gaiti Rabbani

Gaiti is a well-travelled CQ Specialist, Trainer and Facilitator native to the UK, residing in Australia. When she’s not immersed with her clients designing and delivering training programs, she can be found in close embrace with new and exciting cultures across the globe.