The only thing more fascinating than cultures are the vast differences between them. Equally as fascinating is that cultural diversity can create higher performing teams in one place and be blamed for terrible conflict in another. What’s the difference? Trust. If people can build trust despite their differences, they are able to harness differences for everyone’s benefit. But, if trust doesn’t exist, those differences undermine the team and create unhealthy conflict.
Culture is literally defined as “The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” But people do more than just “regard” culture, in fact, in as much as culture is shaped by its people, it also shapes the people that live in it. And when you work across cultures, the differences can be used to your advantage, or they can create insurmountable barriers.
This great article in HBR highlights how easy it can be for cultural differences to become barriers. As the author Erin Meyers points out “What gets you to “yes” in one culture gets you to “no” in another”. Indeed, harnessed correctly, culture can be your greatest asset. In fact, it is increasingly being recognized as a powerful force in business, political, social, and even personal settings. Merriam Webster declared it as the most popular word of the year and Deloitte’s annual Human Capital Report rated culture as its most important issue. “Leading across countries and cultures” is one of the top 2 business-critical skills for senior executives according to DDI’s “Global Leadership Forecast”.
What Are Common Cultural Differences When Working or Volunteering Overseas
Take any collection of countries and you’re likely to see some stark differences in the culture of its people. When you go volunteering, Experteering, or working overseas, be prepared for vast differences. This chart, from Globesmart Cultural Assessment, shows an example of a typical Experteer compared to a citizen from the United States of America, Russia, and another from China.
Here are some of the most common cultural issues we see in our Experteering programs
1. Being shocked by lack of expressions
This great article in The Atlantic shares how the simple act of smiling makes you look intelligent – or less intelligent – depending on where you are.
2. Yes means no and no means yes.
Often times, many cultures with high levels of power distance and/ or low levels of individualism tend to be very agreeable. Meaning that they will say yes or confirm understanding, even if they don’t agree or understand. This is because societies with high power distance tend to appease people they view as superiors and countries with low individualism try hard to belong in social settings, meaning they are likely to agree verbally, even though they will act differently after.
3. The time is not always the time
Sometimes, if lunch starts at noon, it means that you’re supposed to be there at 11:59. Sometimes this means that you’ll start eating closer to 1pm. This varies by culture and is often times a big awakening
4. Avoiding healthy discussion
In business, a little conflict is often a good thing. Heated discussions from diverse stakeholders can lead to the best solutions. However, while some cultures tend to be confrontational, others work hard to avoid confrontation. Even healthy discussions can be considered confrontational and many people will lean towards or shy away from them as a result.
5. Just going (or not going) for it
Some cultures are very risk averse while others embrace it. We’ll often hear of Experteers being frustrated by a lack of progress in risk-averse cultures or feel that they are being pushed too hard in cultures with high-risk tolerance.
This chart from Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map, helps shows the stark contrast between some cultures:
4 Tips to Build Trust and Work Across Cultures More Effectively
As you prepare to travel overseas and engage in any work — professional or voluntary — the following will help you build trust and be an effective teammate when you are part of a diverse team:
1. Know where you stand: Take a cultural assessment (like GlobeSmart’s Cultural Training and/ or Hofstede’s Cultural Insights.
2. Be curious and inquisitive: Read about the country and people you’ll be working with. Use research, like Commisceo’s Cultural Guides, to read about the country you’ll be visiting. Supplement your reading by speaking with people that have worked there.
3. Have open conversations: As you plan your trip, try taking a cultural assessment in partnership with your host. Then have a discussion about what the results mean.
4. Stay flexible: The more flexible you can be to adapt to the culture you are in, the better it will be for you and your new team
As Erin Meyer shares in her HBR article
But the trust you have built, the subtle messages you have understood, your ability to adapt your demeanor to the context at hand, will ultimately make the difference between success and failure—for Americans, for Chinese, for Brazilians, for everybody.
And here’s the cool thing about cultural differences: The more often you immerse yourself in culturally unique settings, the better you get at adapting to them. This is why activities like Experteering and travel do so much to help you grow as a leader.
For more on building leadership skills across cultures, we also recommend these four HBR articles: