If you don’t think this is a relevant question, just have a quick look at what uncle Google has to say about it… people make money offering courses in intercultural training for the workplace, there are hundreds of articles about the values of these skills, forums on how to resolve intercultural conflicts, etc.
Here are 6 tips and tricks to help you navigate:
1. Keep an open mind
This sounds like an obvious one, but it’s extremely difficult to execute. Keeping an open mind doesn’t just mean listening when others speak. An open mind also means that you rid yourself of assumptions and stereotypes. Just because you live in the same country as your coworker now, or simply because your coworker is also a homo sapiens does NOT mean the two of you have standard similarities. Things you take for granted might mean something completely different to others. Don’t assume. Learn and find out.
2. Learn the language
Chances are people from different countries speak a different language than you do. If not, then good for you: you’ve got something to bond over. When I arrived in the Netherlands I thought maybe I had arrived mid flu season – it sounded like everybody had something stuck in their throat and they were trying to cough it up by speaking. Turns out that’s just how Dutch sounds to most people upon the first encounter.
The main point is that you should read and listen. Ask your colleague for a word or two of their language and learn it. This shows interest and that you’re willing to broaden your horizon. How cool would it be if you could shout over “Hey, could you help me check the toner supplies of the *insert exotic word for printer here* ?” Or you could start off small, and just learn how to say something like “thank you.”
Language of course not only refers to speaking and reading, but also to our bodies. Observe how people move, their posture, and their gestures. This will allow you to interpret things more accurately, avoid misunderstandings, and help you express yourself in a way they may understand better.
3. Make an effort
Show that you recognize the person as having an origin just as valid as your own. Perhaps ask about what their favorite holidays are and what is most celebrated in their culture. People appreciate interest. Nobody is forbidding you from going onto Wikipedia either and looking up a map of Sri Lanka so that when your coworker tells you the city they’re from you won’t have to awkwardly nod in silence because you're not sure where Sri Lanka even is anyway.
4. Don't underestimate the power of the nomnoms
Yes I’m completely serious. People bond over food. At Bohemia Amsterdam our relationships are solidified by stroopwafels, Dutch syrup waffles of happiness. If what your coworker brought in for lunch looks good, let them know, perhaps this is how you will discover your love for arepas. Ask whether they have any cool suggestions for where to go for lunch together, or if you would like to be a bit more conservative, just ask them if they know a place they would recommend you.
5. Ask the right questions
People are curious. Try not to ask too many, or too direct questions. It is your workplace after all, a professional environment. Chances are your colleague might feel like a bit of an outsider, or perhaps you’re the one from a different country. Either way, blunt questions like “So will your marriage be arranged?” or “Why would you eat something like that?!” may be out of genuine curiosity, but they may also be genuinely offensive or just plain rude.
6. Weigh it out
Lastly it’s important to keep things in perspective and accept that all cultures are greyzones. Each one has its perks and drawbacks. Living in the Netherlands as a foreigner, especially from countries that place emphasis on small talk and always being nice to each other, you might occasionally feel like somebody threw a brick at your forehead because of what is known as Dutch directness. Get ready to be told point blank that your coworker or client is not happy with you, and that you do in fact look fat in that dress. The drawbacks? – You might take it personally and feel offended, perhaps even attacked. The perks? – You’ll know that when told they are happy with you or that you are rocking that dress it’s honest and 110% true.
I know I said don’t make assumptions, but I must admit I am 99% sure that nobody really enjoys being the loner kid at the lunch table, or the loner colleague at the water cooler for that matter. The main thing to remember is that culture shock is a real thing and can happen from both sides. Be patient. Once you see the many different things other cultures have to offer you will see that an intercultural workplace and synergy go hand in hand. These are just some simple guidelines to help you avoid falling into some classic biases and offer you a few starting points to make connections. Of course there are hundreds of layers and cultural aspects to dive into. Take advantage of your newly broadened horizon and who knows- maybe you’ll be offering one of those fancy intercultural workplace conflict resolution classes someday.