Globalism, crossing borders and interacting with people from other countries go hand in hand with cultural intelligence, that is, being aware of cultural differences, and being willing and able to adapt to them. With that notion in mind, I would dare to say that the majority of international companies take at least some initiatives towards supporting the cultural adaptation of their international employees, and the cross-cultural preparation of their soon-to-be expats. Yet, what are the cultural differences we mostly look at seems to be a question in itself. I guess that an easy answer is that cultural differences are the differences between cultures of different countries…So, for instance, the differences between Germans and the French, or between people from the US and Japan.
Yet, if you have travelled the world yourself and have some sort of international experience, you might also agree that it is not always that simple. Have you ever noticed that you may feel much more at home with fellow expats or international students abroad, rather than back home in your local community? Or maybe you perceive more ‘sameness’ and less difference with your multinational colleagues at work, than with your boss of the same national background? Isn’t it paradoxical then that at times we may feel more cultural differences with the people from our own country than with people from other countries?! I guess it depends, on how we understand the cultural differences.
Andy Molinsky, professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, notes in his recent article for Harvard Business Review that ‘Cultural Differences Are More Complicated than What Country You’re From’. Specifically, Andy argues that the question of ‘what national culture does the person come from?’ is not all that is important. I totally agree.
Naturally, cultures do shape human behavior (to some extent), yet, we can find cultures on many different levels in a person’s environment. Apart from national culture, in the organizational context we can also speak about organizational culture, generational culture, and cultures related to industry, profession, geographical location, departmental designation etc. In this sense, it would be quite an oversimplification to rely only on German cultural attributes when relocating from Spain to Germany, for example. Within the German culture we are quite likely to expect that people in Berlin would be quite different from people in Munich, that the organizational culture of a multinational like BMW would be substantially different from the organizational culture of a more regional SME, that German employees in the banking sector would have quite a different work culture from German employees in a startup, and that within one organization the millennial employees would somewhat differ from the baby boomers. To bring a more specific example, take a look at Google. Google is well known for its laid-back corporate culture, which it maintains in the relatively more structured and rules-driven German society.
As such, Andy Molinsky proposes to look further than the national culture and explore the culture at the levels of region, industry, company, and finally, people themselves. I would emphasize that this notion of a more complex culture does not downplay the meaning of cultural intelligence and cross-cultural training in the context of national cultures. We should still look into differences in the values, etiquette and common behavioral patterns based on national cultures, yet we should also explore further and deeper. In other words, we need a more nuanced perspective on the people we are going to work with abroad. And one of the best sources of such nuanced knowledge could be the people, similar to you, who have already undergone the experience you are about to embark on. That’s right, we should ask the other expats 🙂