I have always been really interested about people. Since a teenager I have been studying psychology and philosophy to understand the complex creation that is a human being. I have been always infatuated by every theory of the human mind and behavior. Team roles, personality theories, languages and even astrology is interesting to me. Only because they all provide just a small perspective from the complexity of the whole person. We are all built from so many elements, depending where we grew up and what kind of things had happened to us. The most recent interest that I have developed is the cultural background of people. It shapes our view of the world and our view of the communication so that it can be almost impossible to share the message in a way that both parties agree on what happened.
Working in a multicultural environment has definitely been a new experience to me. I was doing an exchange in the Hague University of Applied Sciences. I studied a minor, Artful business creations, that lasted 10 weeks. During this minor the students were divided in to work groups of 3-4 people. There were a mix of different cultural backgrounds. I have been working in international situations many times before but never this intensively and deeply. And the whole time with the same few people.
My group was very colorful since every one of us had a different cultural background. There was me, a Finn, an Austrian, an Egyptian-Dutch and an Iranian-Dutch. There was a lot of different situations where you could really see our cultural differences. In topics like being on time, what women should be like and what are work ethics. And of course, communication.
One good example of it is something that the Iranian colleague told me about their culture. She was explaining how in their culture you need to ask the other person several times if you want to offer them something to them. And the person needs to say no two times before they can answer yes. It kind of reminds me of the Finnish way of not saying what you really want. But still, if I would be in the situation, the person would not get me to ask three times. And I would have never known that I was supposed to ask several times.
According to the book the Culture map from the author Erin Meyer, there is a lot of differences in communicating. I have noticed that I have a hard time with some cultures, the French is a good example. When I was reading the book, I understood why. There is a lot of in-between-the-lines communication going on in the French culture. But like in the Dutch culture, also the Finns see this as a sign of not being trustworthy. But French think this subtle way of communicating makes a good communicator. I find that really interesting since I’ve always been taught that a good communicator makes every point very clear but for some cultures it feels like you are talking to them as they were children. Now I understand that I need to widen my perspective on the subtle communication to be able to understand and work in a multicultural environment.
The book gives an advice for these kinds of situations: listen what is said but also what is meant, not only by your ears but also listen to the body language. It actually is a very important lesson especially since I’ve noticed that since I have an autoimmune system disorder, my body language can be very different from what I mean. I have a leg that is always shaking, and it is almost impossible to stay still for me, so I move a lot while sitting. That has led to situation where people have been seeing me as nervous or stressed even though I am not. Or even rude. I have been trying to be more in control of the messages that I send through my body but the best thing I have come up with is to just tell straight that this kind of body language is because of the disease. A very western way to look at it, right? Maybe I can still develop this…
Cultures are always in relative positioning in comparison to your own culture. Like Meyers says, it is not enough to be open minded and see people as individuals. It is not about being judgmental towards people’s differences but more about missing a lot of the messages and situations and not being able to affect them.
The first impression I got from the Dutch was that they are very direct with their words. And actually, that is true, but only in a certain way. I noticed that when I accidentally hurt a teacher’s feelings by saying something that seemed really normal to me. Only by her reaction I realized I had said something wrong. Luckily, I realized in that situation and was able to apologize and it actually led to a very interesting conversation about trust and cultural differences.
I think that this topic is becoming essential now when our team is starting to do more and more international business. If we work with the Chinese people, we have to understand the way that our cultures differ from one another and how we are able to really build the bridge in between. There are a lot of consultants that help companies work with different cultures so I the least we can do is to get some kind of training from a professional.