The Magic of Learning from other Cultures

When I stepped into a classroom for the first time 10 years ago as a newly qualified English teacher, I had no idea that it was going to be me who would learn more from my students than they would ever learn from my frantically planned lessons. I’ve put this off for a long time, but I’d now like to finally write down some of the main teachings that I’ve picked up from being in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual environment over the last ten years.

Let Labels be Self-Determined

I can’t deny that at times I have loved being ‘the Irish guy’ when abroad. Embracing the stereotypes and generally being responsible for the ‘craic’ I think has been adopted by many of my other countrymen and women as well, but when it comes to a professional or academic environment I think categorising ourselves as a particular nationality can be quite unuseful and perhaps dangerous at times. Labels generally create division and while they should be perhaps encouraged on a micro-level (self-determining yourself as something) there should be a conscious effort to avoid labels such as, ‘get the French guy to do it’ and so on.

"From my experience, people want the freedom to communicate the parts of their culture that they are proud of, but don’t want to feel that they are ‘different’ to other team members."

Allowing and encouraging ourselves to label ourselves as whatever we want is a fantastic development in recent years, but lazy labelling in a professional or academic environment should be avoided. Instead, refer to and think of people as whatever their role is within the environment they are in. If they want to refer to themselves as something else around the water-cooler that is different, but should also be encouraged.

Communicating in a second language is way more difficult than most English speakers give people credit for - be patient.

This is one that I feel the majority of native English speakers are incredibly unaware of. And getting to an advanced level on Duolingo does not mean that you understand how difficult it is. Communicating to others in a professional environment about complicated topics which require problem-solving thought processes is difficult for native speakers. If you had to do this in a language which is not your mother tongue then this would mean that your brain is working twice as hard as it normally does, pushing you much more than you are normally pushed. That doesn’t mean we should be slowing down the conversations in the boardroom or that inadequate performances should be attributed to insufficient language skills, but a degree of empathy should be employed and a lot more respect, as the morning’s meeting was a lot more strenuous for them than it was for you.

Different cultures and different languages bring different perspectives - utilise this.

Imagine being brought up in a country where all the children’s cartoons were different, the nursery rhymes and even the animal noises too. Perhaps they even write from right to left instead of left to right. What does this result in? It creates a different type of world within that person’s mind. A world and a mind which has been moulded in a different way to yours. This is why I believe cultural diversity within teams is incredibly important. They might see solutions when you do not and vice versa. Find a way to take advantage of that.

An understanding of a culture can help you bring the best out of people

This one requires a personal anecdote. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job over the past ten years has been the opportunity to sit in a classroom with 15 people, each one from a different cultural background. I once set-up a role play game which involved a lot of speaking, jumping around and a bit of fun in general. My experience was that Latin cultures needed very little ‘encouragement’ in general. In actual fact, it was difficult to get them to stop talking at times. On the other hand, it was more difficult to motivate people from other cultures such as Japan as they were generally quite shy (I say generally as obviously this is not the case for everyone). However, if I told a Japanese student that they were no longer ‘themselves’ in a role-play and that they had to adopt another persona, they suddenly became alive and we saw a totally different version of them. The primary focus of the activity was for them to be speaking as much as possible and so knowing this little trick enabled me to bring cultures from all over the world together, each one equally communicative as the other.

Most people love to tell you about where they are from - embrace it

I already mentioned this briefly above, but I have always found this a great tool if I am trying to make a connection with someone who is a little bit slow to open up. Be curious about their culture. Ask questions about the food they like to eat, what they like to do to relax where they are from. Most people will be really engaged and love sharing their culture with you.

Inter-cultural bonds are best built from doings things as opposed to simply getting people together in a room for a chat

This could probably be said about creating relationships with people in general. But I think the idea of getting the team into the boardroom for a coffee and informal ‘catch-up’ is a bit of a waste of time and most people will feel like it is a bit awkward and forced. Doing things and creating shared experiences is the basis of forming real connections. This could be an extra-curricular project which the team is working on together or perhaps even a culinary workshop from one of the better cooks on the team (I am sure there are plenty of better ideas too). Shared experiences create real conversations about things which are not work and I think we’ll all agree that they are important too!

Avoid cultural in-jokes

In-jokes within a team are always something to be avoided but perhaps we also need to be conscious of whether or not we are unintentionally excluding other team members by referring to a tv series or famous comedian who is only well-known within your particular culture. Quoting Father Ted is a classic example within the Irish workforce. We all grew up with it and it is an undoubtedly classic show, but nobody else has a clue what you are talking about and could feel quite left out of the joke. Instead of quoting the show, perhaps you could be proactive and encourage your new team member to watch the show. Educate them about your culture. If they are in your country then I am sure they would only be too happy to engage and try to learn more about popular culture.

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