Mind The Culture Gap

The word culture is a contentious one. If you were ‘cultured’, it used to mean you had experienced the different customs, practices and rituals of many other countries. It used to describe the well-travelled, those who’d live abroad and people who had extensively studied others. To be cultured was a badge of honour.

Now ‘culture’ is applied to and tagged on to other concepts, creating a minefield in both professional and personal circumstances. Cultural appropriation is just one example – an act described as the ‘unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity’. 

Cultural appropriation led to the singer Adele apologising for wearing her hair in Afro Caribbean Bantu knots and it is the reason you’ll never see an English rugby player do the haka again (performing this tribal ritual unless you’re Maori will be banned under the UK’s new free-trade deal with New Zealand).

Another incidence that is becoming more prevalent in the workplace is ‘cultural fit’. Such is the issue that a recent BBC article was devoted to discussing company culture and why perfectly qualified recruits are being rejected because they don’t fit a certain cultural mould.  

The relocation industry is ripe for cultural mishaps, especially if sensitivities are in a heightened state. Every day, conversations between employees, relocation experts and HR departments are taking place across continents, with colloquialisms as well as cultures overlapping.

In fact, our industry has its very own buzz phrase ‘culture shock’. It’s not a phenomenon reserved exclusively for when a family arrives in a new country – cultural shock can start from the first ‘phone call or meeting. Spotting alternative approaches to communication can be hard. Many of us are familiar with the French custom of air-kissing as a greeting – even in place of a handshake at professional events – but what if the differences are more subtle?

The nature of the relocation beast, so to speak, means many initial interactions happen over email – a platform where tone of voice, turn of phrase and small nuances are often lost in translation. To that effect, cultural differences can be very exposed during the relocation phase. Professionals are at a greater risk of thinking new colleagues or managers are simply rude when, in fact, they’re simply working within their own, acceptable cultural boundaries. 

It all boils down to a culture’s ingrained way of doing business, and part of a good relocation and orientation package is to help all those involved decipher any communication sent. For instance, a one-line email from the New York office may come across as curt and cold but on the East Coast, it’s just a super-quick and super-efficient way of dealing with something – no offence should be taken. 

Even a simple ‘yes’ may have different business interpretations. In North America and most of Europe, saying yes usually means someone agrees with a concept, idea or proposition but in Eastern and South American business cultures, a yes is more likely to mean someone understands what you’ve said but doesn’t necessarily agree with you.

Here in the UK, we have a habit of skirting around the issue so as not to appear rude or insensitive, while an email exchange with Dutch associates will feel and read quite differently – their frank and honest exchanges often take professionals by surprise (and the Dutch are more likely to refer to you only by your surname). 

Even response rates to email communication come with cultural differences. While we are all used to factoring in different time zones, not every culture is in tune with the ‘always on call, always online’ working style. 

Many companies will respect holy days, while France has seriously adopted the ‘right to disconnect’ attitude, with a law introduced in 2017 that requires businesses with more than 50 employees to set time frames during which staff should not send or answer emails. 

It’s not a new concept either as back in 2014, the German labour ministry prohibited managers from calling or emailing staff after work hours, except in an emergency. So if you send an email and don’t get the immediate response you expect – or your call persistently goes straight to voicemail – don’t assume the worst! 

If you’re worried about missing queues or using the right sign off when engaging in written communication, this BBC article on the difference in global email communication is a good read.

For more wide-ranging advice and practical assistance with cultural interpretation and orientation when relocating, contact Klippa today. 

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