You’ve just arrived at your new work assignment in a country halfway around the world. Or perhaps you’re about to share your screen on a Zoom presentation with a valued client from another country. You’re a seasoned global professional. You’ve got this, right?
Despite your best intentions, unseen cultural trip wires are about to limit your success—unless you know where to look for them.
Cultural trip wires are blind spots that form in unfamiliar cultures, and they make accurate observations of that culture—and its norms—vastly more difficult. Aptly named, these trip wires are practically invisible and work insidiously, causing us to do a metaphorical face-plant to our global career instead.
Even the most seasoned global professionals can miss cultural trip wires. However, if you’re aware they’re out there, your focused attention will help you avoid them.
Trip Wire #1: Thinking You Have Significant Cross-Cultural Experience
When you ask people about their cross-cultural experience, they often begin by sharing the number of countries in which they’ve worked or visited. And they’ve just set off a trip wire.
Passport stamps, frequent flyer miles, or breathing the air of another country is about as developmental for building cultural agility as Taco Tuesdays in the company cafeteria. While it’s natural for people to think their frequent travel builds cultural skillsets, most business and vacation travel provides only a superficial cross-cultural experience.
The more we travel for business or vacation, the more we’re lulled into believing we’re skilled at working in other cultures. It’s akin to playing the same miniature golf course for several years and believing that you’ve become an outstanding golfer. Overconfidence creates a blind spot.
When faced with situations involving deeper cultural differences, people accustomed to superficial travel lack the framework to understand these challenges—and are surprised when they stumble.
Even long-duration international living can create the illusion of experience. Long international assignments or studying abroad often involve the cultural ease of compatriot communities, international clubs, international schools, and a corporate environment that feels more like home than a wholly different culture.
Trip Wire #2: Believing Technology Reduces Cultural Differences
In our post-pandemic world, there’s a broad assumption that the more we use collaborative technology, the less we need to worry about cultural differences. Is technology a cultural equalizer? No, it’s a trip wire.
People underestimate the cultural differences associated with information sharing, text and chat communications, asynchronous collaboration, and even technology preferences. Our cultural norms will influence how we use email, video calls, and texting. It’s easy to miss the effect of culture because of the ease and speed of communicating.
Think about what it would take to travel to another country for a meeting: a passport, plane ticket, hotel booking, and so on. The effort alone is a reminder that you’re in a different place.
Now, compare that effort with the ease of clicking on a link for a transatlantic conference call. The same meeting required about 30 seconds of preparation, without any effortful reminder of being “in” a different culture.
Technology, while convenient, doesn’t reduce the importance of understanding cultural differences. Silence, for example, can mean “lack of interest” in some cultures and “thoughtful engagement” in others. The cues we read from communication are exacerbated on the small screen where we have fewer non-verbal cues.
Trip Wire #3: Assuming Deeper Similarity
The cosmopolitan culture of today has homogenized what well-educated professionals and university students look like and sound like. Among this higher socioeconomic status group, there’s worldwide similarity around manner of dress, music enjoyed, luxury items coveted, ethnic restaurants frequented, and more.
But there’s a problem: these omitted visual cues trigger the expectation that a person ascribes to a certain set of cultural norms and values, which may be markedly different from reality. Without visual prompts, we assume more similarity and fewer cultural differences. Don’t let the same iPhone or handbag set off this trip wire. Cultural differences remain.
The use of English around the world has made this trip wire a bit more challenging to see. According to the statistics compiled by Lemon Grad, there are almost 400 million native English speakers. Nearly twice that number speak English as a second language—almost all of them in the ranks of the well-educated and professional people worldwide.
This same trip wire exists in our digital world: over 50% of internet content and information in scientific journals is in English. When we can communicate with ease with other professionals, we again can forget that deep cultural differences remain.
Be Wary If It ‘Feels Easy’
Spending time in different countries and with people from other cultures has the potential to be highly developmental. But it takes more than stepping foot in another country for that growth to happen.
For a cultural experience to be developmental, you need to experience contextual novelty—to have the feeling of your expectations not matching reality and, therefore, not quite knowing how to interpret behaviors (or, if you think you do, getting it wrong). This feeling of “newness” helps your brain analyze what it sees rather than relying on assumptions.
How can you avoid these trip wires? Seek out long-term, collaborative relationships with peers from other cultures. Have open conversations where you can question your assumptions about “how things are done.” Ask for feedback from coworkers, cultural coaches, and leaders. Are the perceptions of your behaviors aligning with your intentions? Are your interpretations correct?
Having high-quality cross-cultural experiences, combined with feedback from those who understand the culture, is the best way to avoid these career-limiting trip wires. While clearer, it’s not the “easy” path. It’s the one that will lead you to your cultural agility and, ultimately, professional success.
Written by Dr. Paula Caligiuri. Have you read?
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This extract from Build Your Cultural Agility by Paula Caligiuri is ©2021 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.