Celebrating diversity, rather than judging people who are different, is rewarding and fun says Maria Henze

Twenty-nine years living in 7 countries across Europe and the Middle East has certainly helped shape me into the person I am today. Living in different countries and working in several international organisations – such as the colourful and multi-cultural United Nations – has taught me many invaluable lessons and given me a varied and interesting professional life. It would be impossible to convey all that those experiences have given me.  I have therefore chosen to share what I have learned about building professional relationships across cultures and nationalities.

My best advice when building cross-cultural relationships is to be yourself whilst at the same time being sensitive and responsive to cultural differences.  It is always good to listen and observe when you find yourself in a new and different situation, treading a little carefully at first. Good working relationships mature over time, and this is particularly true in a multi-cultural workplace.

When you are a guest in someone else’s country, be sensitive to how things are done in their society.  Find out about their culture, traditions and values.  Seek out the locals and learn from them.  See the sights and explore places of interest.  Soaking up the atmosphere whilst learning about a country’s history is a sure way to develop an understanding for, and feel connected with, your new home.  At the same time, I would advise that if someone is a guest in your country, you should be sensitive and courteous and not expect them to understand how things work in your society straight away. Always assume that people want to learn, and be patient and kind as they do.

When you enter an international, multi-cultural work environment, apply the same strategies in order to establish and develop the best possible working relationships.  Just as traditions and values differ between countries, so do the practices of running businesses and organisations. Seeking out individuals who have worked in the company for a long time, or finding yourself a mentor, can be helpful ways to understand an organisation’s culture and the way it works.

When I was very young and at the beginning of my career working for the United Nations, I had a Japanese colleague who really illustrated to me how different we all are.  When I first encountered Hisato, I must admit that I was quite naïve and probably not very generous in terms of embracing behaviour which did not conform to my norms.  Whenever I passed Hisato in the corridor outside my office, he would apologise and smile vaguely whilst looking at the floor and pressing himself against the wall, making himself as small and invisible as he possibly could, in order to allow me to pass – even though the corridor was probably at least 4 metres wide. I remember thinking how unnecessary it was for him to do that, with only a vague appreciation of how polite he was being. Whenever we had a social event, Hisato would take pictures and distribute them to everyone, always accompanied with apologies for any “untimely shots” as he would say.  I remember wondering why he kept distributing pictures if he felt that he always needed to apologise for doing so. Again, Hisato was only being polite.

Hisato and his wife Suki once invited me and some colleagues for dinner at their house.  In the Middle East where I had lived for several years prior, it is customary to leave a little bit of food on your plate to indicate that you are full (otherwise your host will assume you are still hungry and will keep filling up your empty plate). I did the same at Hisato’s house.  I left some rice and a tiny bits of vegetable on my plate, and thanked my hosts for the lovely dinner.  They looked a little surprised and uncomfortable, as if they did not believe I had enjoyed the food. Only after a bit of discussion about Japanese customs and traditions did it become apparent to us all how we had misunderstood each other. I learned so much from Hisato.  He, and many other colleagues at the UN, helped me to embrace and appreciate cultural diversity in the workplace. Strangely, Hisato and I were on a first name basis from the very first day we were introduced, which may have been Hisato’s attempt to adapt to the work environment outside Japan.

Here are some reflections and advice around working alongside colleagues from a different culture, based on what I have learned over the years.

  • Learn about your co-workers’ cultures and acknowledge their traditions and beliefs. Thoughtfulness and respect go a long way.  Celebrating diversity rather than judging people who are different is rewarding and fun. And remember, others will see you in a kind light, and will be more likely to reciprocate, if you make an effort to be open with them.
  • Learn about work culture too. Work culture varies greatly from organisation to organisation, from country to country.  Be flexible and open to new ways of working, in order to move the business forward with efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Working for the United Nations has taught me that sweeping generalisations about nationalities are not helpful or even true. Although some general national characteristics and stereotypes may be prevalent, not all people of the same nationalities are the same.  In an increasingly global work setting, people change and adapt and often create their own, personal mixture of characteristics, rather than living up to their traditional, national ones.
  • Being respectful of other people’s time can be a challenge in a multi-cultural environment. In some cultures, being on time is not necessary, whilst in others it is considered rude if you are not.  I would suggest playing it safe and respecting set times.  Do not be surprised or offended, however, if you are the only one who arrives on time for meetings.  Of course, if getting people together for meetings in an efficient manner becomes an issue, consensus needs to be sought so that everyone in the organisation can work optimally together, to avoid wasting each other’s time.
  • How you express yourself varies across cultures. In some, it is the norm to be very direct, in others it is not.  Refrain from belittling people or making them feel uncomfortable because they are not expressing their views in the same way you would.  You can be firm and convincing without imposing your own ways on others by being diplomatic and allowing others to speak freely.  And by learning to listen well to others, you may learn something too.
  • Be aware of the language you use when speaking with your colleagues. To avoid making anyone not of your nationality feel excluded, try not to speak too quickly or to use jargon or slang which may be unfamiliar to some.  Avoid making others feel excluded by speaking to colleagues in a language that is familiar to everyone present.
  • Remember that gestures do not have the same meaning in all countries. Whilst you might think a thumbs up conveys a positive message that things are going well, it means the equivalent of putting up the middle finger in some countries.  And, of course, if you like diving, you will know that a thumbs up means you need to get to the surface, which is usually not a good sign at all!
  • In the Western world, making eye contact is generally considered an indication of openness, attentiveness and honesty. In some cultures, however, eye contact is less appropriate because it can indicate disrespect or even sexual interest, and it does not mean someone is not attentive and honest. If you are unsure whether to make eye contact, or for how long, my advice is just to tread carefully and take your cue from your colleagues.
  • Giving a colleague a friendly hug for a job well done is perfectly acceptable to many people: touch can definitely enhance interpersonal relationships. For some individuals, however, such contact may mean you are getting too close. Touch may be inappropriate for cultural, religious, gender or other reasons, and it may even be mistaken for sexual harassment.
  • You should obviously never, ever make racist, religious or sexual jokes. What is a joke to you can be a deep insult to someone else, and you may even be breaking the law.  You may also remove any chance of a healthy working relationship if you joke about any of those things.

Be a role model by being a kind and considerate colleague.  Build bridges between people by helping them to understand each other. And remember, always treat others the way you, yourself, would like to be treated.

The ability to respect and appreciate cultural differences will, in turn, win you respect and appreciation from others. Bringing this sort of thinking into the workplace will not only open many doors and make your working life smoother, but it will certainly enrich and flavour your life too.

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Maria Henze is an Executive Assistant, supporting the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen, Denmark. After completing her secretarial education in London in 1987, Maria has worked her way from junior secretary to senior ... (Read More)

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