We often talk about “cultural differences” when interacting with people from other countries but my experience from working and living in more than 15 countries worldwide, and travelling to many more, has also shown me that there are many more “cultural similarities” than we at first realise.
When I went to Singapore and joined the back-office team in the dealing room at Barclays, I was the only Englishman amongst more than a dozen local staff. Luckily for me, following my natural instincts proved to be my best investment!
I had no idea at first about all the Chinese languages and backgrounds that existed amongst my colleagues – what did I know about Hokkien and Teochew, Cantonese and Hakka? I thought it was all Mandarin!
But all of these east Asian cultures place huge emphasis on things like:
- Being family-oriented
- Showing deference to authority
- The group being more important than the individual
And all these linked to a “listen closely and speak slowly” way of communicating.
Being the new boy in the room, and coming from a home and business background of wanting to learn all I could from others rather than tell them what to do, my natural technique was already:
- Could you help me with this?
- I don’t understand …..
- How / where / what should I do to get this right?
Which was just what was needed to build cultural bridges!
So, with my normal eagerness for using what I learned as quickly and fully as possible, and being deferential – no, make that “respectful” – to my colleagues, as well as being intent on becoming one of the team, I quickly settled in and earned their respect in return.
And friendship. After just a few weeks, things had developed to where I was frequently going out to lunch with my Singaporean Chinese friends down to the Waterfront food stalls – where they kindly taught me to use chopsticks, which certainly stopped me going hungry!
Looking back, it’s clear that I was unconsciously using key behaviours from my own culture & values that were similar to, and fitted well into, this very different setting. And it was the focus on these similarities, rather than the differences between my culture and that of the people I was with, which enabled me to communicate effectively and build those relationships.
I suppose the main difference for me today is that I am much more consciously aware and knowledgeable about what’s going on around me culturally in different countries – and more competent in knowingly making use of that knowledge.