Why I’m an intercultural trainer
My name is Rana Singh Johal and from my name you should be able to tell quite a lot about me, even though you may never have met me. My first name is a contraction of my actual name but may suggest that either I am a woman of Arabic background (as in the writer and broadcaster Rana Kabbani) or perhaps a man of Indian or Pakistani background. Further detail about my heritage is identified by my middle name, Singh. This is a middle name (or surname) common to males from Sikh families, but were I a woman of such origin my middle name or surname would be Kaur – so you can tell I’m not a woman, but a man of Sikh heritage. Finally, my family name is Johal and Johals are a Sikh clan from the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. From knowing my name you get clues to my gender, my religious affiliation and my ethnic and cultural origin. Names still have meaning and purpose in many parts of the world, but not so much with Western names. For example, my brother in law is called Clive Frankson – how much could you glean about him from that?
All this is by way of introducing the rather obvious fact that one way in which Indian (South Asian) culture differs from the majority of Western cultures is the way in which names are dealt with and have meaning. There are of course many other such differences between cultures – e.g. food, forms of etiquette, power relationships, gender relationships, language, religious belief, attitudes to time, family structure, workplace norms and use of initiative – and such differences may prove crucial when working with colleagues or companies from different cultures to one’s own.
These days, with people from across the world seemingly in constant transit in pursuit of opportunity, the chances of encountering someone from a quite different culture from one’s own are greatly increased, so having some clues as to who you’re dealing with could help you avoid such dangers as making wrongful assumptions or causing unwitting offence and thereby foster a better personal or working relationship.
Furthermore, not only are people in transit but so are companies and business of all sizes, and as an intercultural trainer I’ve worked with companies in the USA, Israel and across Europe, helping clients as diverse as Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd., Cisco Systems, Bupa and UK based colleges and universities to be more effective in working with people and and companies from diverse cultural origins.
For example, I was providing intercultural training for a large UK (United Kingdom) based healthcare company that had started a partnership with an Indian IT outsourcing company. The healthcare company’s UK based managers were confused about their Indian colleagues’ behaviour during teleconference calls. Such a call would start as expected and progress well but sometimes, such as when an Indian colleague might be asked for his opinion on a certain issue, the UK team would be surprised by the connection becoming silent, as though the call had been muted. After a couple of minutes or so the sound would be restored and the Indian colleague would give a response. This happened frequently enough for me to be asked to offer an opinion as to what was going on.
The issue was simple. In the group oriented cultural context of the Indian team, singling out an individual to offer an opinion in front of his colleagues would be tantamount to requiring ‘out of group’ behaviour and almost impossible to accede to for the Indian colleague. The sound being muted was being done in order to provide sufficient time for the Indian team to have a brief group discussion and in order to arrive at a consensus response, which the individual being questioned could then offer as his response to the UK team’s question – thereby allowing the person to maintain his ‘in group’ status, as required by his cultural background.
The solution was for the UK partners to give their Indian colleagues some prior notice of questions that might be relevant to upcoming teleconference calls, so that the group discussion and consensus process could take place before hand and thereby allow for an uninterrupted conference call.
The ability work well with people from diverse cultures is called ‘Cultural Competence’ and may be defined as: The ability to interact effectively with people from different cultures. This ability depends on awareness of one’s own cultural world-view, knowledge of other cultural practices and world-views, tolerant attitudes towards cultural differences, and cross-cultural skills.
Globalisation has led to companies and workplace teams being increasingly likely to encounter people and business approaches from sometimes greatly different cultures. Cultural competence is therefore now a vital skill for any ambitious business professional or any company that wishes to form more productive relationships both with partner companies and clients from other cultures, or within intercultural teams with which they work.
My own interest in and ability to work effectively with people from cultures different from my own was driven by own life experience. I was born in India but came to the UK when I was pretty young and grew up in two cultural worlds. At home I lived in a conservative Punjabi culture, speaking Punjabi and taking part in Punjabi cultural life, Sikh religious rituals and eating Punjabi food. At school and then at work I lived in British culture, spoke English, ate western foods, listen to British pop music. I also watched British TV and read a lot of Marvel Comics! Negotiating two quite different cultures was both a necessity and developed into an unconscious skill. Since then I have also lived and worked in Germany and Belgium, learned yet another language and become a specialist in Indian popular cinema. I have also been privileged to able to bring my experiential knowledge to bear in training and supporting others to be more effective in communicating and working with people of diverse cultures. However, many cultures bring many challenges.
Back in 2006, the global management consultancy company Accenture published a key research paper about intercultural working and the key points of that paper remain pertinent to working with diverse cultures. The research revealed that improved cross-cultural communication improves global sourcing productivity and also highlighted that the key cause of cross-cultural working issues are different communication styles, different approaches to completing tasks, different attitudes towards conflict and different decision making styles. Other issues that I have discovered as key to effective working across cultures include, different value systems, different attitudes to time, different approaches to authority and different understandings of taking initiative and accountability. If you want to know more please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me through https://colorfulcultures.co.uk/contact/
For now I can offer the following brief tips for more effective cross cultural working.
1.Know your own culture.
All of us are shaped by the culture(s) in which we developed our sense of who we are. It is this this that guides who we see people of different cultures and how we respond to their difference. Much of what we come to understand as ‘normal’ or ‘the way things should be done’ is shaped by our own culture and associated set of cultural assumptions. If we want to be more effective at working with people from different cultures we must first make the effort to consciously understand why we do things the way we do and how other cultures may have equally valid approaches to what is ‘normal’ and ‘the way things should be done.’
- Ask questions.
if you can’t understand why someone behaves the way they do, try asking why. You can do this in a respectful and courteous manner and it is far better to just ask why than get angry and confused. Asking questions can counter assumptions and improve understanding between people of different cultures.
- Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
People can tell if you are being sincere and positive in wanting to understand them and work more effectively with them. We all make mistakes but an honest and positive approach can smooth the way even when we make mistakes.
- Be careful of using humour, slang and body language.
Humour is culturally specific and what is funny in one culture may be terribly offensive or just plain incomprehensible in another. Similarly be careful of body language such as gestures such as ‘thumbs up’, shaking of the head , shaking hands and how close you stand to someone else.
- Remember that ‘common sense’ is not universal.
Common sense is the notion that there are some things that are shared by most people as being obvious, readily understood, right, appropriate and sound. However such
‘common’ (that is, shared by most people) sense is not as common as might be expected, especially in the context of diverse cultures living and/or working together. What a person from one culture regards as ʻcommon senseʼ may well be viewed as nonsense by someone from a different culture. Honest and respectful conversation may be required imm order to arrive at an agreed concept of what is ʻcommon senseʼ to both.
And here’s a bonus tip – Be careful of generalising!
One of the dangers of talking about diverse cultures is that we tend to generalise, but human beings have an annoying ability it resist generalisation. I started off this article by talking about what you could learn about me just from knowing my name. However, I was also generalising about myself. You could indeed tell that I am male, from a Sikh religious heritage and of Punjabi origin. However, what you couldn’t tell is that I am also a Londoner, having spent the greater part of my life living in Greater London and feeling as much a Londoner as a Punjabi. You also couldn’t know that though I am of Sikh religious heritage I converted to Christianity in 1980 and would be happy to describe myself as an Evangelical Protestant Christian. What’s more, though I am indeed a proud Punjabi, I married a woman of Welsh birth/British origin and have two wonderful children who would describe themselves as British. All the complexities and specifics of my life would only become apparent if you were willing to engage with me and ask questions that could help you develop a more rounded sense of who I was – none of which would be obvious from just knowing my name.
This has been the first of three articles I shall be writing about intercultural./cross-cultural working and in the next article I’ll focus more on working with Indians. Thank you for taking the time to read my article and if you gave any questions or comments please do get in touch via https://colorfulcultures.co.uk/contact/
Rana Johal February 2018
by Rana Johal