Tag Archives: Intercultural Competence

What we know can get in our way. This is true with intercultural knowledge too. We tend to assume that everything works exactly as it does in our home culture. And then we experience the opposite.

It could be that a train is not running when we expect one. The definition of „morning“ could be different than “roughly between 7 and 10 am”. Machines for petrol, for parking or for payments could be running in another way than what we are used to. Locks could turn the other way round.

It could be common to have a net price for a meal on the menu, a charge for the cover, a charge to open a bottle and the VAT added at the end of invoice. Maybe the tip is a lot higher or lower than what you are used to.

Crossing cultures you could be confused by words, by language, by habits, and by standards. It could be that your expectation of „normal“ is absurd in the other context. It could happen that you drink water from the tab and it is detrimental to your health.

Intercultural crossings have been as old as Europe. We (Europeans) never had to go far to hear a language that we do not understand. We know the feeling of being in a place where you have a different currency, different plugs, and different rules. We enjoy these little challenges as long as we are tourists. We enjoy our incapabilities in the language. When we have crossed many cultures and lived abroad, we tend to overestimate our intercultural competence. We tend to think that we are good at communicating with people from other cultures. This might be easy on holidays but it could be a challenge when we are managing a global and virtual team.

As managers, we then often ask our team members to follow our cultural dominance. We assume that we create the rules because we were chosen to lead. We assume that we can become irritable and impatient with our staff if they do not „get it“ right away. We assume that we don’t have to change, but the others have to.

Think of your last week.

Did you think to yourself „Why don’t they get it?“. Have you been annoyed or even angry with one of your team members from another culture? Have you said „…this process is not efficient“? These could be signs that you are not yet a global leader and that your intercultural competence has not evolved yet. It could be a sign that you still have a lot to learn in interactions with people in general but especially with people from other cultures.

Tell me what you remember.

Kind regards,

Angela

PS: This post is about a related theme on aggression at work and five methods to reduce aggressive and annoying behavior in the workplace.

 

In the TGV Lyria the French train running between Paris and Zurich all seats are normally taken. Like on a plane you need to sit in your reserved seat. In Switzerland there are no reservations. When a train gets too full and extra train is implemented during high times. Switzerland deals with this issue by adding more trains.

On Saturday, I entered the train in Dijon (France – the city of mustard) and placed my suitcase at the beginning of the compartment but could not find me seat in the lower deck. First I thought that there was an error on my ticket. Then I noticed the upper deck. I walked back, went up the stairs and thought “I must remember where I placed my suitcase.”

When I found my assigned seat 106 it was taken by a young girl. I experienced how my “Germanic” sense and preference for structure and order immediately was challenged. My stomach gave me messages “Out of order, not right, what is happening here?”

I tried my best French to state that I had a reservation. The girl showed me her ticket and explained in French that there was a mix up as the young couple in the seat in front of her had taken their seats. No one showed signs of getting up for a middle-aged woman. (My brain said “These younglings…no respect for age.”)

I saw no point in getting angry at the girl and her cute little sister who explained again the same.

I was thinking about approaching the couple directly but for a few minutes I did not know what to say and how to stay polite in French. Then a veiled lady told me to wait for the conductor. I felt out of place as people were trying to pass by. I thought about sitting out the problem and felt a frog creeping in my throat as I tried to say in French that I was standing here like an idiot because of a mix up of seats. I was also getting hot in my winter jacket and worried about fainting.

I felt tired and wanted to sit and work. I don’t like it when my plans get interrupted. I waited in silence and looked at my ticket to decide how long I could stand here. The girl (who was in the wrong seat) became nervous. She urged her boyfriend to handle this embarrassing situation. Then another young man got up and showed him something on his phone. The boy turned to me and said in English “You can take my seat. It’s number 64.“

I went back to the lower deck where I had left my suitcase, could not find 64, then went back up, passed by the boy and smiled. “It’s probably over there”. Then I asked the passenger in seat 64 if he had a reservation. He said yes. I apologized, went back to the boy and said “Did you say 64 or 46?”. He smiled “I said 54.”

I smiled, finally found seat 54 and ended up near where I had originally placed my suitcase.

Why am I telling you this?

I thought this is one of the situations that you experience in a new country all the time during your cultural adjustment.

I was proud of myself that I did not get too angry and tried to use humor in an awkward social situation in a language I did not feel 100% comfortable in. It also showed me again that your inner state is important when handling intercultural issues. You can solve problems better when you stay calm and composed even if a situation upsets you.

This situation gave me a good chance to apply my seven principles for intercultural effectiveness and I learnt once again

I could have reacted differently but by being quiet and patient the younglings came up with a solutions that was a win-win for all of us.

Other lessons learnt that help in intercultural settings.

1) Communicate your Needs

I should have said that I need to sit and work. Everything else did not matter to me. I should have said that I did not sleep well and that my back hurts when I stand to long but I did not. Maybe I could have arranged the new seat faster with better communication and checking in about the seat number. How often does it happen in intercultural communication that we do not really understand each other?

2) Forget Powerplay, Authority and Assumptions about Social Hierarchy

It’s not always necessary to play a power game when you can solve problems together. In order to do that you need to keep an open mind and accept a bit of chaos (which is hard with a Germanic mindset). I admit I felt a bit entitled and was going to pull an arrogant move, about how I had paid for my seat etc…but something stopped me from doing that. Maybe I am not that kind of person anymore.

3) Religion means nothing – Love is everything

The boyfriend’s argument “I wanted to be close to my girlfriend…” convinced me and I really did not question that I could take his seat instead. I loved that everyone seemed to sympathize with me and engaged in my “problem”. I expected the least support from the veiled lady but she immediately provided a solution. My heart went out to her as I thought she does not need to help a stranger.

 

4) Small issues can create big emotions

Although this was such a small dilemma it almost made me cry. I felt awkward and out of place, someone who does not fit in and this probably triggered old childhood memories of being new in class with a funny accent when I was showing up in second grade after our big family move. Watch your feelings and emotions. They might be triggered by old memories.

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This German booklet on intercultural competence gives a good overview of the topic and uses layman language to explain basics of intercultural dimensions, culture standards and differences based on research by Hofstede, Trompenaars, and Hall. The booklet also gives ideas on how to develop intercultural competence and has pragmatic examples, that are relevant in today’s business world. An example is feedback culture and how German managers are often perceived as harsh and unfriendly when giving feedback. German managers are willing to listen to such tips as often they do not intend to be unfriendly, but it is the way they are brought up. It would be helpful to have a similar booklet in English, especially if you would like to give it out in training. If you are a German-speaking internationally mobile manager the booklet is ideal for you especially when you are confronted with intercultural communication for the first time. Due to the readable pocket book size, it can be easily read on a plane or train ride to your next international business negotiation.

I recommend this booklet with 4/5 stars.

Angela Weinberger

By @angieweinberger

When I ask Zarah for her name we instantly connect. She laughs with me „Can we help you Madam?“. I have to laugh. Here’s a young refugee offering to help me bringing the IKEA bag with men’s shoes (in the right sizes) into the „distribution center“. Zarah wears a top that indicates she likes to go clubbing. It’s probably a donation she received in her last night’s interim camp in Serbia. Today she made it into the European Union. She’s with her husband. They beam at me.

I am going inside the white tent. She has to stay behind the table. She needs a warmer shirt size 36 I assume. Little chance that I find a fitting top right away but I find a sweater she is happy with. Later I see her again. Her English is fluent. I distribute scarves and hats at the time. I don’t ask a lot of questions but having her name helps me finding her in the crowd again. With the men it is harder. They all call me „friend“. I try to differentiate their faces. Holding up pants too big or too small, then in one box I find a pair of pregancy pants. The young man says „yes“ and laughts. It’s the first one that fits after I held up about five pairs. I pull out a sweater which looks a perfect fit for a stronger young man. „This is your style“. He smiles at me. „Thank you.“ „Pleasure“.

When I cannot find what we need and wish this place had a better structure so I could find pants and shoes in the right size I ask the volunteer woman who seems to have the supervision here.
„Men ask for shoes. Shall I go to storage. There was a delivery.“
„Yes, and can you bring women’s jackets too.“.
I need to get out of the small unorganized tent. It seems to be a waste of effort. So I become a deliverer. I walk with my torch between the storage and distribution tent.

When my IKEA bags are empty I go back to refill sleeping bags, mats, tents and blankets. The soft ones. I hand them to men. One at a time. We don’t want waste. Everyone is very grateful. A young men needs a baby sleeping bag. By the time I am back with a few of them and a bottle and a tent I don’t see him anymore. I hope his baby will be warm enough.

The interim camp in Rözke welcomes the refugees crossing the Serbian boarder. After they walk for another five kilometers they arrive and are given food, tea and a chance to rest.

Most of the refugees look tired but well groomed considering what they have been through. I am humbled. Thinking about how fast I complain on travel I do for fun or business.

It would have helped if we had more clarity on the process

"Mission One" - 11 SEPT 2015 - Action from Switzerland
“Mission One” – 11 SEPT 2015 – Action from Switzerland

On one of my deliveries two women in their early 20ies ask me about the busses. They look like Eritreans but then I cannot really tell because it is dark. Maybe they are from Syria, maybe not.

„We have heard rumors that people wait for eight hours for the bus in the heat. What happens if they keep us here for the three days? Will we be kept in a camp or arrested“. I have the impression they are alone. No husbands. „Please get onto a bus tomorrow. They will take you to a train station nearby and then you can move on.“

I understand that fingerprinting is an issue for many refugees and wish I had more current information. In their case I prioritize security. I ask them to go to the large blue and white tent so I can find them with a tent for themselves. When I get back I cannot see them. I wonder if they decided to walk to Szeged, the next town 10 km away. I did not ask for their names. I wish I had.

In Röszke giving a smile to a refugee or making them laugh by talking Arabic could be worth as much as a fleece blanket. I try to multitask. It works. We work on from 11 pm to 2 am. It feels like an hour. I can see that the number of men looking for pants or shoes is reduced and many refugees sleep in tents or outside. We speak to other volunteers. We build relationships to UNHCR staff from Hungary.

The morning already seems days away. We left from our hotel in Kecskemet where Gabor, the manager wishes us luck and tells us that he’ll pray for our mission. We are six volunteers today. The men have medical supplies, mats and blankets. The van I rented has 200 sleeping bags and lots of other donations. The backpacks we loaded last are well received and gone right after we are allowed to pass the police stop at the entrance.

We waited there for about an hour, giving out „snickers“ to the young officers who seem to be tired. They liked our van. I drive the van to the blue and white tent. We unloaded only what the tent required: Shoes for men, shampoo and toilet packs and a few sleeping bags. The first woman I meet with a child asks for cream. I cannot find it but she is happy for the toilet kit.

We unloaded all other donations go in the newly built storage tent. We help build up the storage tent in an organized way. Normally this field is used to grow plants. The storage tent is made in a field. We managed to keep sleeping bags, clothes clean and dry. Trucks from mainly German-speaking countries unloaded their donations during the day. A UNHCR staff from South America coordinates income and orders. I like her calm and structured approach. The warm weather helps to keep the donations dry but is also a threat to the refugees when they have to queue to get on to a bus.

Our four men Thomas, Balz, Edi and Patric left us to do other tasks. I feel they have more stamina. I am careful not to overwhelm myself. I take breaks when I need them. In a moment of frustration about not finding everything in the distribution tent I leave that space. There seem to be enough tired volunteers so I start to do the runs between the two tents.

The volunteer experience shows me that our support can be very useful if we keep certain measures and have contacts we can trust on the ground. If you consider volunteering I’d advise you have a conversation with Gabrielle or myself first. We need Arabic, Farsi, Urdu speakers and drivers. If you’d like to come on a “mission” to Eastern Europe, you should commit to at least four days as you probably need a day to rest once you return.

If you would like to understand how you can support ACTION FROM SWITZERLAND please join the Facebook Group of Action from Switzerland.

Here is also a nice summary of our support by watson.ch.

 


The idea of the Intercultural Coach is fairly new. I know around three books on “intercultural coaching”. The best one has been written by Gesa Kraemer and Kirsten Nazarkiewicz. Gesa and Kirsten were ten years ago where I wanted to be now. They were intercultural coaches already when no one knew what that meant.

While the term “Intercultural Coach” seems to have meaning in Germany it is not commonly known in Switzerland. There are different approaches to “intercultural coaching” and the term “interculturalist” is not used in Switzerland a lot. What we do is coaching professionals through an intercultural transition ideally improving their effectiveness by increasing intercultural competence on different levels. In our business, it means coaching in an intercultural transition context or coaching of global managers.

We integrate developing intercultural intelligence and effectiveness into all our programs as we feel it is a key competence for global leaders, in client service and global team performance. For our client selection, it means that we value intercultural diversity.

Why it can sometimes be a burden to be an intercultural coach

The Swiss culture in my view tends to value the opposite. It’s based on excluding rather than including. If you look at how “Switzerland” was founded it is very obvious why the people learned through generation to protect each other from the enemies outside. What started with the Ruetlischwur in 1291 is still in the mindset of the culture. (I call this concept “The Circle of Trust” in my best Robert de Niro-Voice).

The other reason is that in my personal life I spend time with people from different cultural backgrounds. The multitude of experiences and lifestyles sometimes clashes. There are situations in my life where I have to get up and leave a discussion because I cannot handle it emotionally. It often happens when differing religious and political views are at the table. While I consider myself open and tolerant I have a strong value-based attitude that is biased towards “Germanic” logic and values. My approach can get in my way. I get frustrated when clients or friends have a different approach.

As most people, I tend to overestimate my intercultural sensitivity and I am not as great in this topic when I get under pressure. As most of us, I fall back into my “cultural default” (citing Sundae Schneider-Bean, another outstanding intercultural coach, and trainer) when under stress.

 

Seven Principles of Intercultural Effectiveness

What I have learned over the years working across cultures that we have a lot more potential to be compassionate without judging. We just need to learn to reevaluate our conclusions and judgments. We need to give people a fourth and fifth chance and we need to accept them how they are. Then we are true humans, we are able to forgive and we’ll have improving performances in our global teams.

When I am asked in a coaching or training: “So what do you do about that?” I have to say that I try and fail or in most cases I eventually succeed if I follow those seven principles.

1) I try harder and show more patience.

2) I watch my conclusion from other angles.

3) I am more compassionate.

4) I give people a third and fourth chance.

5) I trust even if I had been hurt before.

6) I listen to my heart.

7) I speak slow and use simple language.

Those Seven Principles of Intercultural Effectiveness have been translated into visual cards and can be ordered from us (either for online or print). Email me.

Kind regards

Angie Weinberger

 

 

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