At the heart of many people’s difficulties with adapting to other cultures and mind-sets and ways of doing things lies fear. What kind of fear?
Fear of otherness; fear of making mistakes or a fool of yourself; fear that you may be missing out on what is really going on. It’s a common problem with many busy executives, expatriates, and business owners or entrepreneurs.
So what’s the answer? Travel.
Many, if not all of the cross-cultural learning encounters I have experienced have been in a travelling context. Or at least in the context of relocation from a usual workplace or home environment to a place where the signposts are less familiar, where it’s necessary to interpret and learn how to respond to new cultural signals—and above all, to interact with people whose backgrounds may not be familiar.
THE JOURNEY IS WHAT COUNTS
Travel, of course, is meant to broaden the mind. But travel by itself is not necessarily enough to develop your cultural intelligence. It depends how you travel and what you take from the experience.
I may travel four times a year to Morocco or Cancun, but if I spend almost all my time at the hotel swimming pool, seeing expatriate friends for lunch and dinner, and rarely going beyond the hotel perimeter except perhaps in an organised sightseeing tour, I may return home more relaxed but with little sense that I have been somewhere completely different—or even different at all.
I have travelled like this—to the island of Phuket in Thailand, full of its expatriate enclaves and condominiums and yacht harbours. I found it difficult to experience anything of Thai daily life, or get any real sense that I was in Thailand, apart from the food in the hotel.
I am not a preacher for adventure travel, nor do I look down on those who travel just for the sake of sun, sand, and sangria with their friends. I have enjoyed holidays like this myself.
However, they have done nothing for increasing my confidence in cross-cultural situations, or for exercising that extra limb or middle eye, or whatever we want to call cultural intelligence.
PITCHING IN AND GETTING ON
For that—surprise, surprise—you have to interact with people from another culture, to experiment, to make mistakes, to have fun, and to generally squeeze everything you can from the world you are pitched into. Sometimes this means navigating situations you didn’t expect and for which you don’t have an inner guide.
You should welcome as many of these situations as possible. The longer you spend in new cultural surroundings (research suggests that more than year in each is of the greatest benefit), the more you will benefit in terms of confidence, problem-solving, and imaginatively putting yourself in the place of others.
Somehow your ear becomes attuned to other languages too, even if you don’t speak them, and your inner voice listens to what other people are saying—perhaps even about you—so that you end up modifying your behaviour and getting on better.
READING THE SIGNS
This attuning to the sounds, phrases, and body language of people in other cultures is one of our deepest instincts. Perhaps it’s because we don’t speak the language, or very little of it, that we find ourselves observing physical signs and responding with our own bodily or facial signals, hints, expressions of warmth or warning.
If we are always chatting amongst ourselves in English at the hotel swimming pool, it is unlikely that we will develop this essential part of our cultural intelligence.
However, when we really travel, we learn a lot more about ourselves and about the new culture we are experiencing.
In business, this can be something as basic as not understanding why a Singaporean audience is staring at you with blank faces when you ask for questions at the end of your presentation.
Or it can be discerned in the slight facial tic and impassive expression of a Chinese counterpart when asked to reply yes or no to one of your contractual questions (as posed by your interpreter).
It can be heard in the odd intake of breath, like a hissing sound, a Japanese colleague might make when you discuss a business proposal.
BE A SPY!
The advice I share with my clients and audiences when faced with strange body language or unfamiliar signals like these is simple. When you travel to a new culture, act like a spy!
I don’t mean you have to be Special Agent 007. I mean you should stand apart at street corners, watch how people behave, discover what makes them animated or dismissive, observe how they use gestures, find out who their friends are, see what they buy at the local market.
You should wander down side streets and alleys in new cities. Find out what’s going on, and if you see something that seems strange to you—perhaps an elaborate temple rite or a street festival mourning the dead—don’t dismiss it. Think instead: ‘Wow, this is interesting. I’d like to know how this works!’
If you do volunteering work in Africa, or participate in a development aid programme in Latin America, if you take a gap year trekking through Nepal and Bhutan, if you learn Mandarin in Shanghai or Spanish in Guadalajara, the one constant should be your desire to be with people from different cultural backgrounds, and if possible, to be adopted by them as a friend and colleague.
I learned that the more experiences I had of living with friends and family in Switzerland, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines, the US, Australia, and Canada, the more confidence they gave me in my cultural intelligence work with businesses, CEOs, and entrepreneurs around the world.
If you want to be successful in business across culture and borders, you have to learn to bend like bamboo. Companies and organisations that want to expand into more diverse markets, or to effectively harness the energies of their multicultural workforce at home, need people who are confident dealing with cultural diversity.
Travel is a great generator of this confidence, especially if you know how to spy.
This is an extract from my forthcoming book, Bamboo Strong – Cultural Intelligence Secrets To Succeed In The New Global Economy.