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“Same Same But Different”: The Need for Cultural Competence in a Globalized World

cultural competence
The iconic phrase “same same but different”, ubiquitously heard in the tourist areas of Thailand as well as other parts of Southeast Asia, is a metaphor I like to use to describe people and culture. While the versatile Tinglish expression is generally used in the context of justifying a higher price for something that may appear to be the same, yet is – or allegedly is – different from another product or service, it also exemplifies how we generally view our fellow human beings.

As I have pointed out before in my Paris TEDx Talk, there is a tendency amongst people of good will to rely on the belief that we as human beings are more similar than different. We like to think that despite some superficial differences in the form of appearance, customs and behaviors, deep down we are all the same – human beings with the same core needs, values and desires. Our innate longing for connection, belief in spiritual oneness, and on the other hand a tendency towards superficiality, all easily lead us to find comfort in such beliefs and assume similarities even at the socio-cultural level.

Yet how similar are we, actually, on this material plane of existence? Are there values that are shared across the globe? Do we have similar expectations or perceive and interpret things in the same way across cultures? Or is it simply that as humans we all experience similar emotions such as love, joy, sadness, anger or disappointment?

To answer such questions, let’s just have a closer look at a few typical scenarios:

• Is it ethical or is it dishonest to expect your business partner to stick to the contract even when unexpected circumstances arise, rather than taking into consideration the underlying human relationship and changed circumstances?

• Is it respectful or is it rude to look at someone in the eyes when they are talking with you?

• Is a “limp” handshake a sign of weakness or of respect?

• Does the answer “yes” necessarily imply agreement or can it also simply mean “I hear you/I understand what you said/I can see this is important to you”?

• Do we approach a negotiation with a “time is money” attitude, or rather with the idea that the slower the negotiation, the better and the more trust can be built?

Indeed the expectations and judgments around such situations can be very different if not polar opposite across cultures. In other words, we might be all be playing the same game in life, but the rules vary. So if we want to experience positive interactions, personal growth and business success in the global marketplace, let us avoid simplistic assumptions and instead truly learn to understand each other.

Let’s step up our game and learn the different sets of rules so that we give ourselves the predictable opportunity to “win” in a variety of environments.

A New Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day

As every year on the last Monday of May, yesterday in the USA we celebrated Memorial Day remembering the men and women who have died serving in the armed forces.

Rhetoric aside, it seems to me that we have become comfortably complacent with the status quo and reality of war.

Now really, how much are we striving towards the day when we can celebrate the achievement of sustained world PEACE?

I believe there are at least 3 very practical approaches each one of us can implement towards this goal starting today:

1. Cultivate inner peace: “As Within So Without” – We are a powerful microcosm of the universe and our outside world is really a reflection of our inner world.

2. Know that ultimately we are all one or different manifestations of the same original essence, all related and all connected.

3. “Same same but different” as the Thais say: Realize that we rarely operate at a spiritual level and that in the material plane of our existence, DIFFERENCES PLAY A MUCH LARGER ROLE than we often like to acknowledge. Hence overcoming the comforting yet deceiving tendency toward universalistic assumptions and the minimizing of differences will be key. Peace in fact requires the willingness to truly understand each other and each other’s perspectives. Only then do we have the chance to connect.

Developing CULTURAL COMPETENCE – the ability to recognize and effectively navigate cultural differences – is one powerful tool toward fostering understanding and ultimately peace.

Feel free to check out my Paris TEDx Talk on “Cultural Competence as a Paradigm for Peace”.

Equinox Symbolism as a Modern Model for Intercultural Training

equinox-yin:yangThe occurrence of the Equinox and the start of the astrological New Year this past week have deepened my reflections and desire to forge a more modern and holistic approach towards intercultural training.

Traditionally, intercultural training has focused almost entirely on the differences between peoples. And understandably so given widespread cultural myopia and the tendency to minimize differences while relying on universalistic assumptions at the expense of true understanding of each other and of smooth interactions across cultures.

In fact, as I have previously pointed out in my Paris TEDx Talk, there is a comforting yet deceiving tendency amongst people of good will to believe that we as human beings are more similar than different and that despite some superficial cultural differences in the form of customs and behaviors, deep down we are all the same – human beings with the same core needs, values and desires. Yet while at the deepest, spiritual level of our existence we are indeed one or different manifestations of the same original essence, this is a level we hardly recognize or consciously operate at, and in our material plane of existence, differences play a greater role than we often like to acknowledge.

Humanity is however evolving at a faster pace than ever. More and more people are becoming aware and interested in their spiritual existence and connectedness. It is therefore time to start acknowledging and nurturing this newly emerging awareness with a new approach towards intercultural training. Traditional tools which focus on helping us recognize and effectively navigate differences should be complimented by holistic and spirit-based ones that will help transcend our generally perceived sense of separation and “we versus them” kind of perspective.

The equinox, an event that occurs twice a year when the hours of light and dark are equal, provides us here with rich symbolism. As with the yin and yang symbol, it stands for the duality we experience in the physical realm while at the same time reminding us that in the energetic or spiritual realm there is only oneness. Everything is in balance. There is a little bit of this and a little bit of that and together it makes a whole.

Our logical minds tend to rationalize and understand reality as duality, but when we access the higher realms, we understand that everything is connected and that we are all one and the same.

All of us here on this planet are simply on a journey. And while our journeys may look different, they are probably more similar and connected than we realize.

Incorporating this knowledge into intercultural training will be an interesting journey for me. I don’t expect it be welcome by all and it will be a fun challenge to make it palatable for as many as possible. Wish me the best and I hope you will be part of the journey.

equinox-yin:yang

Bridging Cultures Across a Sea of Differences: A Personal Journey

Earth boy

I was born and raised in Trieste, Italy, city of arcane splendor and elusive identity cradled at the top of the Adriatic Sea. I have called Italy as well as Connecticut, Germany and more recently Texas, home. I have also lived in Hanoi, Vietnam and have traveled about 45 countries, many of which for extended periods of time. A decade ago I moved to Austin, Texas where I founded my intercultural training and expat relocation services firm, Cultural Confidence.

If you were prone to stereotyping, my hometown of Trieste would help you appreciate the intricacies of culture. Located at the farthest northeastern corner of the country, only twenty minutes from the border with Slovenia, half hour away from Croatia and one and a half hours from Austria, Trieste has been a crossroads of Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures throughout history. Greeks, Jews and even Armenians have thrived here and contributed to its rich culture. And over half a millennium as part of Austria, later to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire, have lent the city the strong Mitteleuropean flavor it shares with other Habsburg cities such as Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

For all the differences one could possibly imagine between my place of birth and the place I now call home, there are three commonalities that come straight to mind. Firstly, the limestone and low vegetation of the Texas Hill Country just west of Austin resemble the topography of the Carso, the karst landscape surrounding Trieste. Secondly, Texas’ strong independent identity and ongoing conversations around its alleged right to secede bring to mind Trieste’s small yet committed movement towards recognition as a free city-state. Interestingly and baffling enough, our ID cards, issued by the Italian government, feature a silhouette of the country missing Trieste’s territory! Thirdly, both Austin and Trieste seem to be proud of the oddness of their inhabitants. Austin in fact prides itself in “keeping it weird” while in Trieste we say “se no i xe mati, no li volemo” – “if they aren’t crazy, we don’t want them”. Further proof of our kookiness is that in our dialect, the normal, neutral way to refer to a guy is with the word “mulo” or “mato”. Literally, and to all other Italians, these words refer to “mule” and “crazy one” respectively, but for us, it’s just how we call our fellow humans. At this point I should also mention that my hometown is pioneer in the field of mental health. In fact, under the leadership of psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, Trieste, soon followed by the rest of Italy, became the first place worldwide to abolish psychiatric hospitals in favor of a more humane, inclusive and progressive treatment of the mentally ill. Unsurprisingly, “crazy” is a customary part of the Triestine landscape.

Karma, family circumstances and lack of a conventional sense of belonging inherited from my hometown, have led me to explore my identity and its multiple facets by experiencing different cultures. Accordingly, I have lived and worked on three continents and traveled some of the remotest parts of the world. A brief romantic relationship led me to leave my job as an intercultural advisor with the German Development Service in Hanoi, Vietnam and move to Austin.

Austin wasn’t love at first sight for me, despite the expectations of all the locals who with smile to their ears would ask me the rhetorical-sounding question “So how do you like Austin?” – with only one fathomable enthusiastic answer in their mind. I also did not relate to the ubiquitous bumper stickers proudly displayed on many cars that read “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could”. Yet despite a brief hiatus in New York City I stayed. Time in fact has changed both Austin – one of the fastest growing cities in the US – and myself in such ways that this is the place that I now proudly call home.

The quality of life here is good. People are friendly, kind and non-judgmental, the weather is nice year-round, we have a lake rimmed by a stunning 10-mile trail in the middle of town and an array of activities of all kinds to enjoy. Locally owned coffee shops are the norm, restaurants of all kinds with organic, locally sourced, vegan and gluten-free options abound as well. My evenings out include the most diverse activities, ranging from dancing forró to live music on a patio outside of an organic supermarket, salsa on a musician barge at Town Lake (now officially Lady Bird Lake), and bollywood for a fundraiser or flash mob. I regularly go to the opera as well as enjoy intimate community gatherings singing kirtan or partaking in sacred indigenous pipe ceremonies. And so much more. I have also somewhat preserved my old-world lifestyle by biking through town whenever I have the chance – to meet up with a friend, take part in a yoga class, go to the farmer’s market or buy groceries at Whole Foods Downtown. Proximity to all these things and riding my bicycle, are essential to my lifestyle. And given the fact that direct access to raw nature is also vital to me, I am fortunate to live in what I find to be the best part of town. In fact, while enjoying proximity to the city’s “core”, I live directly on the “Greenbelt” that stretches through Central/South Austin. There is hardly anything that gives me more satisfaction than being able to walk back home through the beauty and simplicity of the Greenbelt after a swim at Barton Springs Pool or a Sunday afternoon spent downtown.

This is also where I work. My Austin-based company, Cultural Confidence, provides three main services: Intercultural training, expatriate relocation services and language training. While the third offering is relatively self-explanatory, I will briefly provide some insight into the first two aspects of my work. Through intercultural training we help companies succeed in global markets by giving their employees the confidence to work and communicate effectively with foreign counterparts and clients. We help clients in the areas of international assignments, expatriate risk management, global virtual teams, new market entry and merger integration. This work seems to be a natural path for me and is a reflection of some of things I value most in life. It is about developing a holistic perspective, recognizing the yin and yang of our culture-based values and respecting a plurality of views. It is about breaking down barriers through understanding, communication and connection, and ultimately fostering global peace. It was precisely in this spirit that in May 2016 I had the honor of giving a TEDx Talk in Paris on “Cultural Competence as a Paradigm for Peace”.

As to the second aspect of work I mentioned: A few years ago, in the wake of Austin’s fast-paced growth and several inquiries, I decided to add Austin-bound expatriate relocation services to my firm’s offerings. In this capacity, we help company transferees and new-hires from every corner of the globe efficiently settle into Austin. We provide them with an area orientation and tour, home finding assistance and help getting official documents such as a social security card or Texas driver’s license. Having struggled first-hand to make this place my home and now truly appreciating and enjoying it, I find it rewarding to help others experience a smooth transition and discover all the wonderful things this place has to offer. As I believe joys are to be shared and not be hoarded away from others, you can confidently assume that my car does not display the increasingly common bumper sticker “Welcome to Austin. Please don’t move here”.

[The original version of this article is an interview of Anna Katrina Davey with Eurocircle: http://www.eurocircle.com/euro/anna-katrina-davey-bridging-cultures-and-giving-companies-the-confidence-to-succeed-globally/]

3 Lessons I Learned from My TEDx Talk

AKD TEDx Speaker in Paris May 21.2016
 
Giving a TEDx Talk on Cultural Competence as a Paradigm for Peace has been a beautiful journey and I’d like to share 3 key lessons I learned from giving the talk that you might find useful as well.

Lesson 1: Stretch Yourself

The theme of the TEDx event in Paris was “Beyond Our Limits”. My talk focused on the importance of going beyond the limits of our culture-bound reality so that we may truly understand each other beyond the surface and foster peace across differences. At the same time this theme acted a personal invitation and memento to step out of my comfort zone and get on that stage! While I have always greatly enjoyed TED and TEDx talks as a viewer, I had actually never even thought of becoming a speaker. Yet end of 2015 I had the unexpected honor of being invited to submit an application to speak at TEDxIHEParis in May 2016. This honor also implied the necessity for me to leave the safety of my comfort zone and make myself vulnerable by getting on a world-renown stage and sharing my message with a global audience. Glad I did so. It is precisely when we leave our comfort zone that we are able to grow and step up to meet our mission.

Lesson 2: Shift Perspective

Cultural competence requires us to be aware of different perspectives and incorporate a plurality of views. In fact, it requires the willingness to shift our perspective – often. The opportunity to speak at TEDx helped me shift perspective by allowing me to address the importance of cultural competence from a societal standpoint rather than from the business standpoint I was accustomed to. It allowed me to present cultural competence as a tool for peace and serve higher purpose.

Lesson 3: Share Your Message

TED Talks are about “Ideas Worth Sharing”. I believe that if we live authentically, true to ourselves and paying heed to our inner voice, we will all eventually find that message in ourselves which we are called to share with others. We all need to be heard and we can all learn from one another. I am most grateful to have had this opportunity to explore and share my message through my TEDx Talk. And if my talk touches your heart and resonates with you, I’d deeply appreciate your help in sharing it with your network and loved ones.

Let me know your thoughts, I’d love to hear from you!

Peace and Light,

Anna Katrina

Watch my TEDx Talk here!

Feel free to leave comments on and like our Facebook page here!

Unified Communications and Cross Cultural: Enhancing the Effectiveness of Global Virtual Teams

“Today we work very well with colleagues from countries all over the world. Unified communications and global virtual teams have simplified our lives.” This is what system managers often think with regards to working with foreign subsidiaries and making use of the tools to interact with them.

Although I strongly believe in the use of unified communications, I’d like to focus on certain aspects of this technology that can impact how a colleague can be perceived during remote collaboration sessions.

I worked for over 10 years in the field of unified communications: First as a business developer for a company offering audio and video conferencing as well as online streaming services, later for a manufacturer of audio conferencing platforms and data sharing software. During these years I traveled to the United States, the Middle East and throughout Europe.

Exchanges among colleagues of different nationalities often take place within the framework of projects managed by cross-functional teams, made virtual by unified communications and its audio / video conferencing and data sharing software.

Unified communications certainly facilitate collaborations and exchanges at a distance, but can create certain problems in highly intercultural contexts if the collaboration is not preceded by a cross-cultural training addressing the specific challenges met by global virtual teams.

Audio conferencing, for example, refers to virtual meetings with international dial in telephone numbers that allow each participant to join the conference call at the cost of a local call. The problem is that the use of the telephone affects communication and here are some fairly simple examples. Say you have the impression that a colleague is not very involved during the conference call. Well independently from the culture of origin and knowledge of a foreign language the following scenario will be familiar to all of us: Even though audio conference participants may all speak the same language imposed by the corporate culture, the degree of mastery of it can vary and some individuals will unconsciously rely on many visual elements and body language to better understand their counterpart when having a conversation in a foreign language. Audio conferencing erases all those visual details and if we add to that the poor quality of long distance lines, many participants will not be comfortable enough to understand and express themselves freely, even though they won’t admit to it. In fact the willingness to admit difficulty in understanding the other is something that varies from culture to culture. Such difficulty is often perceived as a personal weakness or shortcoming, which brings to mind the following common Japanese scenario: When not understanding a foreigner asking them for information they will most likely feel very guilty as they feel like they are failing at their task, which is helping the foreigner.

Another issue I often come across is expressed as: “I organize conference calls with the whole hierarchy present but people seem to never make a clear decision”. Well again, let’s think about the context: Hierarchical relationships are very complex in many cultures and in Italy, for example, they involve body language and facial expression. So if during an audio conference an employee is asked to participate in a telephone conference at the last minute by connecting for example from Milan while his boss, who also participates in the conference, joins from Rome, most likely the employee will be uncomfortable in expressing his opinion because he cannot see his boss’ face, thus understanding whether he agrees or not with what he or she is saying. This problem could be partially solved with a videoconference, but then again the screen must be big enough and the camera should zoom in on the boss’ face – a rather difficult feat in the case of video conferences with many participants.

And what about speaking out? There are a lot of people who complain that their colleagues will not let them speak during audio meetings. This happens very often with participants from Asian countries who are not used to being as assertive as we are using their voice. We need to be careful, however this could be a simple technical problem. Some older technology, in fact, uses “talk slots”, which means that the voices of all participants are not conferenced-in at the same time. Due to the weak processing power of the system only the two or three loudest voices are conferenced together so that if one of the other participants that was just listening wishes to speak, he or she must speak up so that the system can put the person in the conference and at the same time pull out one of the current speakers to make room for them. That takes time and some seconds of the speech are lost in the latency. 
This means that a participant who speaks occasionally and not loud enough may not be conferenced-in at all, colleagues do not even hear the person and of course they never give him or her the floor.

Furthermore, let’s not forget that in certain cultures (Italy, Greece, Spain, Middle East) the phone is just a tool to be used to schedule an in person meeting to discuss the matter…
So can we really say that audio conferencing makes life easier for everyone?
Virtual meetings need preparation in advance to minimize the practical problems and allow for maximum concentration on the contents, but often this preparation is nonexistent in certain cultures like the Italian one, where we rather tackle the problem during the discussion.

Often participants, among small groups, interrupt audio meetings to find the right translation for specific words or to brainstorm on how to say something while their foreign colleagues must silently sit through those interruptions.
We do not think about it because brief interruptions during an in person meeting are less frustrating than during a conference call, but in a remote session those interruptions can aggravate the other participants who are used to preparing in advance (the U.S., Germany) and they develop the impression that their counterparts are chronically disorganized.

Let’s now quickly have a look at data sharing: Have you ever witnessed a certain resistance from a colleague who is asked to share a document live during a telephone meeting? You could interpret this as a willingness of theirs to keep something for themselves or as an indication that this person is a bad team player, but then again technology may be at fault here.

Some data sharing software does not allow for you to share a single document, excluding the rest of your computer. This might pose a problem if you wish to be able to consult a separate document by yourself (for example notes, a draft), while sharing another one with colleagues. This could be solved by remembering to print out the notes before the conference. Right…but we just said that not everyone plans in advance…

Even viewing multiple documents at once could be difficult using some software, which could explain the hesitancy to share.

The above examples are not intended to disqualify unified communications tools which remain very useful, but one must consider that employees often interact with filters that limit their perception of their counterpart’s reality and the result is a quicker interpretation of a certain behavior based on one’s own values.
Often when members of a global virtual team meet, it’s too late because they have already worked together remotely over an extensive period of time, thus having accumulated many misconceptions about their foreign colleague. 
During the meeting all they will do is unconsciously defend these prejudices that reassure them in their need to be right, which is quite human.

Collaborating remotely amplifies differences, which makes it all the more important to know the different cultures before embarking on a long-term collaboration without in person meetings. 
It is important to become aware of what it means to interact with different cultures, thus realizing that each colleague must be perceived in light of his/her culture of origin as well as the way this culture influences their usage of the professional communication tools.
Only then will we be able to say that we are “unified”.

5 Mistakes to Avoid when Working Across Cultures

Most businesses and other organizations work across cultures every day of the week. They may have offices around the world, work on multinational projects, or work with a culturally diverse team in their local offices. Never before has the need for intercultural competence been greater. In fact, the main reason for failure in international business is not the lack of technical expertise or good will, but rather cultural illiteracy and the lack of people skills. Here are 5 items and common assumptions to be aware of and to avoid when preparing to deal across cultural boundaries.

Assuming we live in a global world where the role of cultural differences is disappearing. Just because the globalization of business is increasing, cultural differences are not necessarily diminishing. When different cultures come into contact with each other, some of its manifestations may converge, while others are more likely to amplify. Similarly, we should avoid the comforting but deceptive tendency towards minimization or universalistic assumptions, i.e. accepting superficial cultural differences such as eating customs or greetings, while assuming that deep down we are all the same – human beings with the same needs, core values and desires.

Relying on “common sense”. What we consider to be common sense should be regarded as common only within our social group, which is bound together by common experiences. Since experience is culture-bound, what is considered common sense behavior by one culture, may not be common or make any sense whatsoever within another cultural context. The similar concepts of intuition and “listening to your gut” (or whatever other organ your culture might like to refer to) might be more useful in a cross-cultural context.

Relying on country-specific lists of do’s and don’ts as if they were “the 10 commandments”. First off, acquiring knowledge of foreign cultural systems is an essential component towards cultural competence and effectiveness in intercultural situations. However, lest we want to foster stereotypes, it is paramount to pay attention to both the quality of this ingredient, as well as to how we are to blend it into the mix of components that are to yield us cultural competence. It can be tempting to take a shortcut and rely on a simple list of 10 or more things to do or not to do when preparing for a foreign assignment. Such lists, however, stripped of the context they originated from, can give us simplistic and unrealistic expectations of our foreign counterparts. They also fail to equip us with the tools necessary to manage effectively in situations that deviate from the rigid reality they represent. It should also be kept in mind that national culture is only one of many cultural variables that make up the complexity of an individual. We need to be prepared to recognize when organizational and generational culture, for example, play a bigger role than geographical culture in the make-up of our foreign counterpart’s values, behavior or preferred way of doing business. Furthermore, knowledge of content alone does not translate into competence of process. In order to be of any utility, culture-specific knowledge needs to be framed in culture-general categories and combined with an understanding of the intercultural processes entailed. This process-focused “recipe” will allow us to develop the skills necessary to interact competently in any cross-cultural situation.

The illusion that communication has taken place. As George Bernhard Shaw once put it, “the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. Stating our message “loudly” is in no way a guarantee that our intent will come across. Effective communication entails that the message intended, encoded and sent by the transmitter, coincides with the message received, decoded and interpreted by the recipient. Furthermore, interculturalists Edward and Mildred Hall remind us that “effective cross-cultural communication has more to do with releasing the right responses than with sending the ‘right’ messages”. In its most constructive form, communication is a two-way process involving a mutual exchange and progression of ideas between two or more agents.

Following “The Golden Rule”. We are all familiar with the Golden Rule, which prescribes us to treat others, as we would have them treat us. In cross-cultural situations it is advisable to distance ourselves from this rather culture-centric standpoint and follow “The Platinum Rule” by treating others, as they would like you to treat them!

France & Italy: Estranged Cousins

“Why should we pay for an intercultural training about working effectively with Italy? These two countries are so close … we know each other, we’re cousins, we do not need such training.” 
This is often what training managers of French enterprises think when it comes to organizing expatriations to Italy or when dealing with Italian subsidiaries. 
And yet …

I have always worked internationally, even when I lived in my home country of Italy I was working in the United States (at the U.S. Consulate General) and later I traveled to the United States, the Middle East and throughout Europe.

I could see for myself that there are different shades of color in terms of cultural distance, for example I’ve realized that in Saudi Arabia I felt much more out of place than in Holland or that in Nevada I felt very far from Europe. 
But how does a French feel like when he or she is in Italy or vice versa? People often say to me, “Italy? It is just around the corner! We always go there in the summer, the Italians are our neighbors!” Well, that’s exactly the problem.

For five years I lived in France while working abroad. I would visit customers all over the world during the week and spend my weekends in France, my adopted country. 
When I got tired of traveling I decided to stop and blend in for good.

So I took a job at a French company where I was the only foreigner among my French colleagues. 
”I have been living in France for 5 years now, I know this country, it will be much easier than working in the USA” I said to myself. 
I was wrong … 
Culture shock was quite heavy, especially because I did not expect it. 
Yes it’s true we are cousins, yes it’s true we know each other a little, yes it’s true we are two Latin countries (well …), but it is exactly this proximity that is deceiving … we are far from knowing each other as we should, in order to be able to work together without the misunderstandings and disagreements that different cultures generate.

When we work with a Russian or a Chinese, we are aware of our cultural differences and we are prepared for possible differences of perception, we are afraid to say things that can anger our counterpart and we go to great lengths to communicate clearly our objectives and intentions. 
Between French and Italians that rarely happens because of this false belief that we already detain the implicit knowledge and mutual understanding which allow us to avoid the pitfalls of communication between two individuals belonging to different cultures.

So we pay less attention, small misunderstandings ensue and accumulate, while leading to a deterioration of the professional relationship. Exchanges become increasingly difficult and squabbles arise.

On vacation this similarity between our countries can help us find a faster way of adapting to the country mores, but as far as business is concerned, it is a whole other ball game: Exchanges between colleagues of different nationalities often take place within the framework of projects managed by cross-functional teams, made virtual by the unified communications trend and its software for audio / video conferencing and data sharing.

Such interactions take place with filters that limit the perception of counterparts’ points of view and the ability to listen without jumping to conclusions and interpretations based solely on our own values.

Often when members of a global virtual team finally have the chance to meet in person, it’s too late because they have already worked together remotely over an extensive period of time and therefore have accumulated many misconceptions about their foreign colleague. 
During the meeting all they will do is to unconsciously defend these prejudices that reassure them in their need to be right, which is quite human. 
The context of corporate work amplifies the differences and even two countries very close as Italy and France can become two strangers to one another.

When delivering training, I always hear the same issues come up over and over again:

I never seem to get the information in a timely manner 


  • How can I improve my colleague’s performance when he does not report to me?
  • Italians are terrorized by hierarchy and do nothing without their leader’s approval
  • they have a tendency to let problems solve by themselves … and it works because we are forced to do without them
  • it is almost impossible to keep a deadline for Italians
  • Italians do not want to apply the process

So I realized that an intercultural training about working effectively with Italy is important indeed and it needs to be practical, useful for companies that have subsidiaries, suppliers or customers in Italy. 
Of course it’s important to pass the basics of cognitive psychology to understand how we operate in terms of understanding and interpreting the world around us, of course it is important to transfer social psychology concepts to understand how people interact with each other as members of different groups and of course it is also important to provide the essentials of Italian culture and its variables; but what corporations need are real scenarios, where participants get involved. 
Training should focus on case studies that allow us to analyze the specific needs and discuss the problems encountered daily by staff during exchanges over the phone or via email on issues related to their positions in the context of their corporate culture. 
We must provide tips that a Financial Control Manager, a Project Manager, a Business Developer can follow to improve their daily business interactions with their Italian counterpart, in this delicate ecosystem called Enterprise. 
So if we really want to be cousins, the first step is to realize that we have drifted apart and that we want to get closer again.

The Meaning of Culture

What is culture? And how does it affect us?

We encounter and make use of the word culture several times a day and in very different contexts. We attend cultural programs, discuss cultural differences as well as agricultural practices, read about the danger of cults and cultivate good or bad habits. Even when standing in the dairy section of the supermarket we are confronted with live and active cultures while searching for the right yoghurt to buy!

Reflecting its Latin origin in the word cultus, past participle of colere ‐ meaning to inhabit, cultivate, foster, worship or take care of ‐ the term culture holds numerous meanings throughout various disciplines such as sociology, cultural anthropology, biology and agriculture.

But for the purpose of intercultural relations and research, how do we define culture and how does it impact us?

Is it the way we dress? The way we eat or prepare food? The kind of cars we like to drive or other means of transportation we might prefer?

Culture is all these things and much more. In fact, most everything we do is influenced by culture: the way we give and receive information, use time and space, or view authority:

Culture is a framework of behavioral patterns, values, assumptions and experiences shared by a social group,

Culture is a mostly automatically or unconsciously applied orientation system of collective values, which makes its group members’ behavior comprehensible and to a certain degree predictable for each other,

Culture is communication, it impacts how we send and interpret messages,

Culture shapes human conduct within a cultural group,

Culture is something we learn,

Culture is like mental software and has accordingly been defined as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others” (Geert Hofstede),

Culture acts as a kind of filter or lens through which we view others, affecting the way we see them and creating multiple perspectives,

Culture is often compared to an iceberg. Like the tip of an iceberg, visible aspects of culture such as behavior, eating habits, or clothing are easy to see. Under the surface, however, hides a huge and potentially fatal portion made up of beliefs, values, customs, experiences and assumptions. Knowledge of the deeper parts of the iceberg helps us understand the “why” behind the behavior. It enables us to make more informed evaluations of global counterparts and avoid misunderstandings that can waste time and damage relationships.

Awareness of our own cultural conditioning and knowledge about other cultural systems build the foundation of cross‐cultural training while paving the path towards cross‐cultural competence.

Becoming Culturally Competent

“Never ascribe to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence”

Attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, this epigram holds true today in many cross‐cultural interactions. We can, in fact, generally assume that intercultural misunderstandings are the result of cultural myopia rather than the lack of good intentions.

The antidote is called cross‐cultural competence, i.e. the ability to communicate effectively with people from cultures different from our own. This is not a quick buy‐off‐the‐shelf kind of remedy but rather a process in which we can identify at least 3 components or stages:

  • AWARENESS of our own cultural conditioning, cultural biases, blind spots and hot buttons
  • KNOWLEDGE about other cultural systems and most importantly about how our own culture is viewed by members of other cultural groups
  • SKILLS acquired through cross‐cultural training workshops, real‐life interactions and experience.

Much like learning to play a musical instrument or a sport, cross‐cultural competence can only be achieved through continued practice.

In the end, our goal is to achieve effective intercultural communication while developing and maintaining successful relationships. And effective communication means nothing less than for the original message ‐ intended, encoded and sent by the transmitter – to coincide with the message decoded and interpreted by the receiver.

Furthermore, for as much as there is such a thing as one‐way communication, it is no doubt desirable to focus on a more constructive form of information transfer involving an exchange and progression of ideas as a two‐way process.

Communication is no simple endeavor. As George Bernhard Shaw once put it,

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

We notice how difficult it is to convey and interpret messages as they were originally intended. This holds particularly true when communicating across cultures in as much culture directly impacts the way we send and receive information.

Bearing this in mind, when engaging in communication with someone from a culture different from our own, we should assume our counterpart’s good intentions, practice empathy and trust our intuition. At the same time, conscious of the common mental pathway of increasing abstraction (known as the ladder of inference) that so often leads us to take wrong actions on the basis of false conclusions we’ve drawn, we need to constantly remind ourselves to avoid assumptions and suspend judgment.

Enjoy the adventure. Cultural competence fosters understanding, mutual growth and gain, while bestowing us with the incommensurable pleasure of expanding our horizons.