No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” This quote given by M.K. Gandhi decades ago is more applicable to our current situation than ever. The world has become a much smaller place due to factors like demographic shift, web socialisation, job/academic migration, etc. which lead to the collaboration of more diverse people and more diverse forms of interaction. With companies going global, the mixed cultural environment has grown even bigger. In situations like these with people from different backgrounds living or working together in a totally new atmosphere, it is important to acknowledge the presence of diversity. Sensitivity to diversity now demands a strategic understanding of the importance of cross cultural communication competence in every action in organizations, communities, and nations throughout the world. Employers cannot under value global business communication and cultural competencies.
Cross cultural competency is defined as the skill, knowledge and ability to understand the diverse forms of human existence and cultures and to engage with them effectively. It is not limited to the one or two cultures one has studied or lived in for years. Being cross culturally competent means effectively interacting with people from any culture. Before diving into the various theories for cross cultural competence, it is important to know about its prerequisites. If people are not open to the idea of acknowledging the presence of other cultures and are not willing to understand them, there is not going to be any progress in the competency sector. ‘Openness and respect’ for other cultures form the base for understanding and achieving cross cultural competency. Next comes the set of skills needed to achieve this. Over the years, many theories have been proposed by various researchers, philosophers and anthropologists defining a set of rules or models. Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist, defined six dimensions of culture that make it easier to identify and understand cultures better:
• Power distance – defines the extent of hierarchical difference acceptance
• Individualism/collectivism – Degree to which individuals perceive themselves as members of a group
• Uncertainty avoidance – Level of tolerance of ambiguous, new, or changed situations.
• Long-term/short-term – Long-term cultures prepare for change; short-term cultures focus on traditions and tend to resist change.
• Indulgence/restraint – Gratification of individual desires.
Another famous anthropologist, Edward. T. Hall defined a few ‘Cultural Factors’ which help in understanding the behavioural pattern of individuals coming from different countries and cultural backgrounds.
• Context- High context and Low Context cultures: describe how important the context of message is in a communication.
• Time- Monochronic and Polychronic: defines the relativist perception of time
• Space- High territorial and Low territorial: defining the boundaries of personal space.
Language is also an important factor that plays a major role in effective cross cultural competence. Oral proficiency is key in establishing a good communication basis. Moreover, each culture has its own norms of communication based on aspects like age, gender, relationship, etc. These rules dictate what is appropriate and what is inappropriate in a situation and therefore play a crucial role when people are interacting in a language that they are not used to.
Based on the above theories it can be said that each country has its own set of cultures from which stems the behavioural pattern of individuals, their belief systems, their interpretation and response to certain situations. Therefore for an effective communication between people from different cultures, it is important to understand their personal, national or organizational culture so that one can align themselves accordingly.
Today we are living in a globally connected society. Students aim to study and work in different countries to gain new experiences which in will help in strengthening their future; companies aim to expand their business worldwide to be more successful. This expansion brings together a multinational workforce, possessing different and innovative ideas, work methods and skills. When the best of diversity is utilised, it is bound to lead to the all round growth, development and technological advancement. But diversity also brings with it a certain number of clashes, which if not resolved might lead to unwanted disastrous outcomes. One such example is the Renault- Volvo merger failure in 1994. Cultural differences and misunderstandings between the two French and Swedish automobile giants was a major reason for this failure. A salient issue, for people living abroad is the issue of which culture they should follow: their native culture or the one in their new surroundings. For example international students have a choice of modifying their cultural boundaries and adapting to the culture around them to blend in or holding on to their native culture and surrounding themselves with people from their own country. The students who decide to hold on to their native culture usually experience problems in their university life and frequent cultural shocks. But international students who adapt themselves to the culture surrounding them (and who interact more with domestic students) will increase their knowledge of the domestic culture, which may help them to blend in more. In a multicultural situation the root cause of differences and/or failures is the varied approach each individual has to a particular problem which again stems from his/her cultural background. It is therefore important to inculcate in people working in foreign environments the basics of cross cultural communication, to avoid cultural shocks and failures. Each individual needs to recognise and respect the presence of a cultural dilemma, to reconcile the differences and finally bring to realisation the change needed (Trompenaars & Woolliams, 2004).
Inculcating cross cultural competency on a large scale is achieved by initially achieving it on a small scale and personal level. I am an Indian, living in France since three months, studying amidst students from different parts of the world like South Africa, Iran, Vietnam and so on. In this short time I have experienced the diversity present amongst us such as the way we handle a group project, how each person interacts with other students and the professors, the way people party and down to small things such as the food preferences. I can asses my cross cultural competency skills based on my responses to these various situations. For instance I am now very much used to the French ‘faire la bise’, which I found quite strange when I first arrived here, or how greeting strangers in my apartment building or at school is now a common thing. Some people like to maintain their personal space while others are always welcoming with open arms. I have learnt to not judge people based on these attributes because just like me they have different beliefs systems based on their ethnicities and thus different reactions to a particular situation. Interacting with new people is a learning experience. I try my best to focus on understanding the diversity present around me and think twice before taking an action or saying something to make sure it does not lead to any clashes. For example one of my group mates is quite determined on submitting report files way before the deadline so we have worked out a way to meet in the middle which is neither too late nor too early. There are many examples like these where I strive to put my cross cultural skills to best use and based on that I can say that I am quite competent. Of course it is a work in progress and with time I aim to improvise and maintain an effective relationship with people around me at school and at my workplace in the future.
In the coming decade the world will be more interconnected with workplaces and schools more multinational than ever, making cross cultural competency skills a necessity to ensure successful advancement and wholesome development of the individual and business sector alike.