Increasingly organizations are looking to hire for “fit.” They’ve become more conscious of the culture that they are trying to create within their company and look for people who have the “right” attitudes, energy, and predilections to meld well with what is already happening or with what is intended within the workplace.

And that can work really well.

And it can also be tricky for those who may not be coming from the same culture that the “fit” extends from.

The reason Canadian employers either don’t hire or don’t promote immigrants is usually because they feel there is too great of a cultural gap between them. They are worried there will be too much discomfort at work because of differing norms and standards among the employees. Their big question often comes down to this:

How can we possibly be comfortable across cultures when…

  • Communication styles vary from culture to culture
  • Speech patterns vary
  • Expressiveness varies
  • Personal hygiene practices vary
  • Norms around personal space are so different
  • People value such different things
  • Even the “cultural basics” are so unfamiliar?

What follows will guide you through the insights and strategies you need in order to increase the cultural comfort in your workplace.

Promoting cultural understanding

Insight #1: You have a culture

If you want to get more comfortable with other cultures, the first step to is to become aware that you have a culture. In this post we’ll define culture as the expected ways people behave towards each other in any given group. At its core, culture is a set of adopted norms and behaviours, and it exists wherever there are two or more people together for sufficient time to develop it. So families have culture, religious groups have culture, friends have culture, nationalities have culture – every group has culture. As such, culture is a construct, that is to say that it can be constructed and deconstructed by group members to fulfill different purposes at different times.

Often those responsible for making cultural modifications in an organization are those in a dominant group, so it’s important to be aware that if you think you don’t have a culture it is because you are in the dominant culture of the country or organization. People who are in the dominant culture see themselves as normal and see everyone else as being cultural.

Here’s a quick story to explain…

My five-year-old grandson speaks three languages and, while riding bikes with a friend, asked his buddy what languages he spoke. The friend looked confused and didn’t say anything, so my grandson continued: “Well, you speak English for sure,” and at this his young companion quickly corrected: “No, I don’t speak English…I speak NORMAL.”

And that is an innocent uncovering of the thought process behind belonging to the dominant culture…”Out of the mouths of babes…”

Insight #2: Curiosity is better than judgment

So, for those people who are in a minority, they often think they have to make all the adjustments to accommodate the dominant culture – until they hit an internal brick wall of “no.” This is generally when they have reached either a shut down or a break through (remember: the biggest feeling of resistance is usually just before the light). Interestingly, this same feeling is often shared by those in the dominant culture when they perceive their efforts to accommodate new or different group members as strenuous, unsuccessful, or drawn out.

Whether you are from the dominant or minority culture is irrelevant here because the thought sequence will be the same: rather than judging yourself (or someone else) for this reaction, notice that the circumstance has brought you to a place of internal resistance. Get curious about why this particular event might be triggering you. Next, just accept whatever comes to your mind, but don’t act on it. Just be aware of it.

Increasing cultural and intercultural competence is about paying attention and asking yourself what different behaviours could mean or where they come from. We are often so stuck on making sure others think and act and believe like we do, and we get caught up in trying to find congruency, consistency, and fit. All of it only leads to one result: we miss other people entirely.

That said, if you want to promote cultural understanding, start by being interested, not judgmental. You don’t have to agree with the inclinations you or others may have, just don’t judge: instead choose curiosity. The basic truth is that as soon as people feel judged – and this includes self-judgment – there’s a part of them that will shut down and they will start to shut you out. Start wondering about the whole person and the whole context, pay attention to the insights you get and move forward from there.

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Cultural comfort in formal settings

During structured times like meeting and job on-boarding sessions, decision makers have extensive control over the environment and can establish a sense of comfort by explaining the parameters and setting expectations about behaviour for the people involved.  The more consistent and congruent these cultural expectations are, the faster everyone will be able to adapt their behaviour to meet the behaviour standard.

Easy statements to use in these settings can start like:

  • “Here is how we do this…”
  • “This is what we expect people to do when this is required…”
  • “When you finish this project, your results should be presented like this…”
  • “During our morning meetings, we expect everyone to…”
  • “When you express concerns, the process we use is…”
  • “In our organization we love to…and here’s how we do it…”

The more dialogues like these are set up and followed through on, the better employees feel about being there because they understand what is required and how to meet the expectations.

It’s also essential that employees are given the specific resources and processes they need in order to meet the cultural expectations of the organization.  While this may seem obvious, often employees are expected to perform to a certain standard and yet they are not given the training, materials, leverage, or time needed in order to meet that standard.  This is why it is important to think your organization’s cultural expectations through and decide how you will:

  • Set your standards
  • Communicate those standards to your team
  • Help people meet those standards
  • Evaluate and compensate your team based on those standards
  • Assess the validity of the standards themselves 

By doing this, if you run into performance or behavioural problems, it’s easy to stop and say, “We need to look at the expectations, and maybe we need to set some new ones or see how we can communicate them better.” You can then discuss, decide and then make those expectations public.

Cultural comfort in informal settings

It is much harder to increase cross cultural comfort in informal settings, like during a networking event, between two colleagues sharing a workspace, or in the staff room over lunch.  When there is less structure, behaviour often becomes looser as well, and it can be difficult for someone new to an organization to understand how they should act, what they should talk about, and what the best way will be to engage with the group.

If you want to feel more comfortable in settings like these, start with these 3 strategies.  They’re simple, yet effective.

Strategy #1: Ask sincere questions

I recently heard a story about two men who were working on a project together, one was Canadian and one was from Oman.  The Canadian understood that the man from Oman had two wives, so he simply asked his colleague, “So what’s it like having two wives?”

Because the Canadian was sincere – he really wanted to know – his question was neither taken offensively nor did it function to separate the two men.  And the answer he received – “Complicated”- served to begin a conversation about family relationships that both the men could share in.  In the end, both team members better understood one another and it strengthened their ability to work together.

When you come to understand another person’s reality, even in a small way, you shrink the distance between “you” and “them.”

Try these questions to get started:

  • “In your company, how did people do this?”
  • “What are your thoughts about that method?”
  • “When have you…? And how did it turn out?”
  • “What is it like to…?”

It’s also important to look for opportunities to get to know people that are not work related. Ask about where they have lived, worked, or traveled.  Do they have extended family?  Did they grow up with animals or do they have pets now?  Where do they like to vacation?  What’s their favourite restaurant? Start with things that are easy and be prepared to answer the same questions that you ask.

Strategy #2: Move from extreme contrasts to nuances

When you are new it is common to assume that others will not “get” your reality and that you won’t be able to explain things to them. All of the changes you notice can create a sort of “overload” where even small differences start to feel unduly burdensome.

If you are in this position, take comfort – you are NORMAL.  There is a book called “Little Bee” that might help you take heart as well.

“Little Bee” is a story about a Nigerian village girl who goes to England as a refugee. Rather than getting bogged down in difference, she watches how people do things and says, “If I were explaining this to my friends back home I would say this…,” and then she goes on: “If I were explaining this to English people I would say this…”  By picking up on communication nuances between England and Nigeria, she positions herself comfortably between the two cultures.

Another story…

When my daughter was living in the Czech republic she said, “I have discovered what it means to act ‘Canadian.'” You see she had a person come up to her in the street and say, “I have never seen a woman with feet as big as yours,” and then just walk away.  She was taken aback, at least initially. In Canada it is unlikely that something like this would ever happen – we tend to be indirect or to avoid talking about subjects that people could take personally. But as she got more used to the culture, she found that people would often approach one another to make a personal comment. It wasn’t that Czechs were trying to be offensive, it was just the way that they would talk to each other.

To summarize this strategy, start by noticing the contrasts.  See how different the “normals” are, then get a language around how you can explain those differences to others who are both within and outside the group.  When something happens that surprises you, or that catches you off guard, watch to see how “normal” that behaviour might be to those within the cultural group.  As you do, you’ll be able to move from a position of judgment to one of curiosity, and you’ll start to understand more of the nuances in cultural behaviours.

Strategy #3: Bring joy, offer solace

Take a second to think about ways people seem to become happier or sadder, and what others do to impact that emotional change.

One common cultural practice in Canada is to give flowers or greeting cards to people when they are sick or when they have lost a loved one.  A Cameroonian friend said that in his country people don’t do anything of this sort…in fact they give nothing that cannot be eaten, worn, or put to some other practical use. He said,

“In my country you make people happy by giving gifts of food and practical items, but the best is to spend time with them because sharing time together is the best gift.”

When he explained this to his colleagues, a conversation started about the types of gifts that made others happy, and the group ended up finding a commonality: they all deeply appreciated the gift of time.  When those similarities emerge, people feel more culturally comfortable.

If you aren’t sure what brings happiness to others, you can certainly ask them and you can also observe how they react to different people and circumstances.  Your goal in doing this will be to structure your actions to bring more joy than sadness to everyone around you, regardless of their culture.  Let me share an example of how this can work.

Awhile ago I learned of a meat plant supervisor who, as the saying goes, was a “tough nut to crack.” Most of the employees at this plant were not members of the dominant cultural group, and they were definitely treated as outsiders by this supervisor. He growled at the employees, alternated his time between slamming his office door and yelling at people, and seemed to enjoy the discomfort he brought to the work environment.  His operations manager, a member of a minority culture, did not like how his supervisor’s attitude affected his work day. But, knowing that having a “you need to change your attitude” talk with the supervisor would likely get him fired, he decided to do something different.

Everyday the operations manager found an excuse to talk to the supervisor about something that wasn’t work related.  Being an excellent cook, the operations manager would often bring in samples of things that he had made over the weekend to share with the supervisor.  He would talk about his hobbies, one of which was wrestling, and forward on short YouTube videos on cars, an interest he learned that they both shared.

With time, the operations manager began to ask the plant supervisor more questions and was able to genuinely enjoy the more meaningful conversations they had.  Because of the operations manager’s persistence, eventually he and the boss were comfortable with each other AND the boss’s behaviour toward plant employees generally softened.

Again, structure your actions so that you bring more joy than sadness to everyone around you.

Growing intercultural competency

The farther away your culture is from another culture, the more uncomfortable it will feel at first. But once you have established a few common experiences, it will not feel so different. Be patient with the feeling of not understanding and with the discomfort of not knowing. Look for direct instruction about what is expected and ask sincere questions: if you are interested in others and want to learn, you will. Next, notice both the extremes and nuances of difference and develop a language to help you explain your observations to people inside and outside of the group. And finally, do all you can to bring happiness to the people around you…figure out what that needs to look like based on the individuals you interact with.

The road to intercultural competency starts with accepting to experience discomfort to learn something new. And what you will learn most about in this process, surprisingly, will be yourself.

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