Learning Another Culture: A Conscious Process

Do not minimize the importance of cultural integration when expatriating abroad – or sending employees abroad. 

The value of learning how to adapt to another culture not only eases the transition for you and/or your employees, it also impacts your bottom line.

Last week, we talked about the difficulties of cross-cultural integration particularly for Westerners.

Overcoming our own cultural conditioning and ethnocentricity in order to accept another culture’s ways is challenging for those from the West. 

That’s why it’s incredibly important for senior managers and employees who are expatriates abroad to learn how to learn another culture.

This actionable step should be incorporated into an employee cultural integration plan. 

In fact, cultural integration should be a top objective when expatriating employees.

If you’re sending employees who don’t have any understanding of the culture or the finesse of diplomacy, then your business venture is likely to fall flat.

A Conscious Process

Think of the conscious process of cultural integration as similar to learning a new language.

First and foremost, you need to study.

Whether it’s through books or a teacher, you should be seeking knowledge about your foreign host country.

This is Cultural Integration 101. 

And like language training, there’s only so far you can get with books; fluency also requires immersive practice with native speakers

Only then can you strengthen your vocabulary, master pronunciation, learn colloquial phrases, and really delve into the nuances of the language.

The same goes with fluency in a culture.

Books and notes make up the theoretical learning process. This can be done at home.

The immersive process is done through active sharing.

Whether you’re sharing a meal with your foreign colleagues, joining in a sport with your friends, or getting involved with your local community, sharing in the foreign culture hands-on is the way to the heart of its nuances.

Learn to Admire

As we talked about last week, the Colonial Superiority Complex may still be an inherent default for those from Western cultures.

But true integration is only achieved when expats view their host culture as equal to their own, despite any differences in economic, scientific, social, or military advancements, etc., between the two countries.

You can be proud of your own culture, while simultaneously showing curiosity and admiration in another’s.

The bottom line is, you must be able to adopt an objective perspective regarding values and norms in order to manage successfully in another culture.

Next week, we’ll talk more about learning about and admiring the achievements of other cultures.

Sink or Swim: How to Stay Afloat When Thrown Off the Deep-end of a Foreign Culture

Whether you’re an expat adapting to a foreign country or an international manager in one’s own country working in a multicultural environment, you must ready yourself for integration.

To integrate means to “bring together and become part of a whole.”

As a foreign or international manager, it’s your duty to bring your team together – to make it a cohesive whole – and you can do this by taking action.

Sink or Swim

Just as you prepare yourself for negotiations, coming up with your objectives and the strategy you might use to achieve them, you must also prepare yourself for integration into a foreign culture.

As with every aspect of meticulously planned business – from putting together engaging presentations that appeal to clients to scheduling your time down to the minute – a cross-cultural business venture requires an extra layer of planning: preparing for the cultural differences and those potential monkey moments that accompany them.

Depending on your organization, you might not even receive cross-cultural skills training prior to departure.

This leaves you two options: take it upon yourself to prepare beforehand or just wing it when you arrive in your host country.

Either way, your host country colleagues and the friends you make will essentially become your “trainers,” while your entire host country – from its local streets, shops, and restaurants to your workplace itself – will be your training venue.

Daily interactions with locals, friends, and colleagues will become hands-on training.

You’ll be thrown in the deep-end and told to sink or swim.

Here’s how you swim.

Learn How to Prepare

In order to successfully swim when thrown off the deep-end, you must eliminate, as much as you possibly can, the culture shock.

This phase is called “Taking Action.”

Taking action involves a conscious effort to adapt smoothly and quickly, avoiding monkey moments in the process.

Being that you’ve already taken the first step of cross-cultural integration – Awareness – you’re already able to reduce cultural monkey moments by following the next steps: Accepting, Adapting, or Adopting.

Accepting, Adapting, and Adopting are generic steps that help you integrate into any culture. 

However, knowing the culture in which you’ll be living, you can take specific action to prepare yourself, for example, by learning the cultural values and norms prior to arrival.

In the next few weeks, this blog will discuss a general methodology to efficiently learn the scope of a new culture.

Primary and Secondary Control: How Cultures Control Their Fate

We’ve been talking about the locus of control over the past few weeks.

Specifically, we’ve discussed the external locus – believing outcomes are determined by environmental factors – and the internal locus – believing fate is in our hands.

Regardless of whether someone has an external or internal locus, each tries to control their fate but in different ways and to varying degrees.

They do so by primary or secondary control efforts, the first of which is active, and the second of which is passive.

Let’s take a look at how these active/passive traits unfold in the workplace.

Primary Control

Those from individualist cultures often demonstrate an internal locus of control.

Individualists believe they control their own fate.

Being as such, they demonstrate active primary control.

Primary control is a trait found in those who directly intervene in affairs, in order to command control over his/her environment or standing

For instance, Sally wants a promotion, so Sally does whatever she can to get what she wants. She works late hours, beats deadlines, invests time into learning new skills, meets and exceeds expectations. She may even try to grease the wheels with superiors and use her networking skills to expand her reach.

Sally doesn’t just wait for the job to fall into her lap. She believes success comes with work, and that if she demonstrates primary control over her environment, she will achieve her end goal.

Sally uses primary control to command her fate.

Secondary Control

Being that those with an external locus – most often from collectivist cultures – do not believe they control their fate, you might think they don’t try to at all.

But they do. Passively.

Secondary control is a trait found in those who align themselves with individuals or groups with established power.

Collectivists prefer secondary control, as their cultural values lean hard on avoiding conflict and the submission of personal control.

For instance, Dan wants to be well-regarded within the company. His colleague, Steve, is already well-regarded. Steve is also part of The Elite, an exceptional group within the company.

So, what does Dan do to get a leg-up? Dan befriends Steve. He works on becoming a member of The Elite. In doing so, he is molding relationships and changing the way higher-ups and colleagues regard him within the company.

Although the individual isn’t as active as Sally in controlling his fate, he is still trying to command passive control by building his image and the right relationships that might aid or change his environment.

Whether someone demonstrates primary or secondary control is largely based on the culture within which they live. But both types of control are seen in all cultures.