What’s Cultural Agility?
We live in an interconnected world: our teams are multicultural, designers in California talk to factory workers in Vietnam, we have Zoom calls across different time zones, and many projects require collaboration across continents, yet no organization teaches employees how to become culturally agile.
Soft skills such as empathy, interpersonal skills, and active listening are in high demand, but how do you learn and teach cultural intelligence? How can you read, understand and adapt to other cultures?
I was raised in 4 different countries and have lived in 9, from Brazil, to Italy, China, and Australia, so adapting across cultures is something I started breathing from a very young age, and it’s also my job as an inclusion consultant.
These are my tips for developing cultural agility:
Cultural agility is the ability to understand that people behave differently based on where and how they were raised and refraining from judging when you see ways of behaving that differ from your norm.
It’s an insatiable curiosity to ask questions and the humility of knowing that we know very little of our neighbours, the 193 colorful countries that share a common home we call Planet Earth.
Lastly, it’s the flexibility to adapt your style and behaviour to get the best out of people and the patience to observe and listen before jumping to conclusions. It’s a lot of things, but I boil it down to one: respect.
I previously wrote an article about a cultural fail of mine: I scolded a Chinese colleague in my first job as a manager in Shanghai, only to discover that taking naps is completely acceptable in China (and many countries in Asia).
Working in Australia, I discovered Australians can be very opinionated, particularly compared to the Chinese. Much of it has to do with the education system and how children are taught to participate in the classroom (or not) from a very young age.
French people tend to deliver harsh and negative feedback. I know because I grew up in France and studied in French schools, where I was always told I could be better.
Then I joined Apple, and the American manager told me how amazing I was, only to receive a performance review that was not as impressive as I thought I was. Many Americans love positivity and often prefer to deliver feedback in a sandwich (positive — constructive/negative—positive) and with a lot of enthusiasm.
I delivered a presentation in Tokyo, and when I asked if anyone had any questions, there was silence in the room. I later found out that some participants did have questions, but I didn’t give enough room for people to speak up. I had to slow down, allow eye contact, and read the air. Only then the questions came.
My Cultural Toolkit
Cultural agility is hard, and throughout my many years of working with teams across 4 continents, I have developed a cultural toolbox that comes in handy no matter what the culture is.
1. Start with respect: you don’t have to agree, but you have to show respect. This goes to traditions, religion, dress code, food and social customs.
2. Remove linguistic barriers: English is a second language for many. Acknowledging linguistic diversity, slowing down, and using simple language instead of jargon will increase your communication efficiency. Enabling multiple communication channels, particularly written ones (e.g., chat, written feedback), can help bridge cultural differences.
3. Travel and get exposure: I can show you how to ride a bike, but you will only learn by riding it yourself and falling a few times. Try to expose yourself to new cultures, ideally by living abroad, volunteering for international assignments, going on holidays where you can have cultural immersion, or simply approaching colleagues and friends from different countries. The best way to learn about a culture is by talking to taxi drivers on the street.
4. Learn people’s names. Although some names are really difficult to pronounce and even harder to remember, the cognitive and emotional benefits of calling people by their names are proven by neuroscience.
5. Embrace the dining etiquette: the most significant cultural shocks I have witnessed were during meals. Americans saying, “Yikes, chicken feet!” in China, Chinese saying, “French cheese smells like vomit,” and my Australian husband horrified at me sucking the heads of the shrimps because that’s what Spaniards do. I know it’s tempting to laugh, criticize, and errrgggg but please don’t. You don’t have to eat snails in France or ants in Guatemala; you can decline with a smile and eat broccoli.
6. Smile: cultural experts will tell you how you should smile here and only smile a little there. Many Asians indeed cover their mouth when they are smiling. A genuine smile helps people bond and builds trust. You don’t want to overdo it and seem inauthentic, but smiles are contagious, and when a person smiles, I unconsciously smile too. A welcoming body language goes a long way.
7. Seek cultural insights: if you visit a client in a different country, ask about the local norms. In China, courtesy gifts to clients are part of business etiquette; you always hand the business cards with two hands and a slight bow. You also serve others food and tea before you serve yourself, and only then start eating. In the Netherlands, people who are more intimate greet with three kisses. Americans love to chit-chat and self-disclose before meetings, while people in Asia love talking about food and trips.
8. Don’t jump to conclusions: when people don’t have questions after a meeting, don’t assume they didn’t want to ask. When everybody agrees with your opinion, challenge yourself to ask differently. When employees ask for a lot of direction, it’s perhaps because they were raised in a culture based on authority where specific direction is expected from the boss.
Training the Muscle
Cultural agility is a mental muscle that needs to be trained and exercised.
Like any muscle, it makes you stronger as a team player and a much more agile and inclusive human being.
Cultural intelligence can become your superpower if you are willing to let go of your own cultural prejudices and look at the world with an inclusive lens.