As human beings coming from all over the planet, we speak different languages, we see the world differently, we engage in our activities based on our cultural backgrounds, we manage conflict differently, we have different communication styles, we even understand humor differently, and we have different working styles. We chose and we have to work together with each other. Therefore, we have to find a way to understand each other better. Penetrating the finest layers of our cultures would be an extremely challenging task if we look at it on our individual level. But by studying others, other cultures, cultural programming, we would be able to build up a reasonably accurate scaffolding for cross-cultural communication which would help us to take the initial steps toward getting to know each other and working together without setting ourselves up for immediate failure.
And just like everything else, studying other cultures starts by studying our identity and its roots and causes.
To start with, it’s important to understand that each one of us has a more personal or private and public or professional identity. Ideally, we can choose the identities which we wish to present based on the target audience which we wish to address. For example, I am a language professional who works in the translation and localization industry. This “shell” helps me to connect to other people more easily who happen to have a public or professional identity similar to mine. From this angle, we are “the same”; we have a common ground to start the conversation. On the other hand, while keeping the focus on similarities, we start discovering each other’s differences. We speak different languages. We have different traditions. We even look different. And... We discover that despite all our efforts, we don’t understand each other. But how we can understand each other if we don’t share the same culture, we don’t have the same values, and we behave and act differently? Why it is that people from China tend to like to work in teams while in the US individualism is more important than anything else? Why it is that different cultures relate to time and punctuality differently, and why is one person more outgoing and expressive in their actions than another? Why do people value hierarchy over equality in some places? Why are Germans so “rude” and get to the point so quickly, and why are people in India are so soft-spoken and indirect in their communication? And why do people in Latin cultures “waste” their time to endless personal chit-chats at business meetings?
According to cross-cultural studies, six dimensions drive cultural behavior:
Individualism vs. Collectivism
Direct vs. Indirect Communication
Egalitarian vs. Hierarchy
Monochronic vs. Polychronic
Task vs. Relationship
Risk-taking vs. Risk avoidance
By being aware of these six dimensions, we can avoid many misunderstandings and we can learn how to relate to different approaches while working with people from different cultures. These dimensions are not set in stone or rigid elements of culture: they can vary and change even within cultures. They are more like little lighthouses to help us find the way to the other person. If we want to avoid creating stereotypes and overly generalizing, we have to keep in mind that an open attitude, empathy, and patience should be key elements in our communications. We can then combine understanding with study, theory with practice.