How to embrace the Cultural Differences?

Published by Sarah Curtis

We talk a lot about cultural differences; identifying them, observing them, trying to work around them.  Trying to discover common ground and to use these as a basis for a working relationship can often be a more positive approach in a cross-cultural environment.

I found this quote offered an interesting perspective. This is an excerpt from an article written by Sue Bryant—a writer and editor who specializes in global business culture and travel.

When dealing with people from other cultures, it is our natural tendency to learn about the difference in their cultures, such as:

  • What sets us apart?
  • What differences should we be prepared for?
  • How should we behave in certain situations?

For example, if your Korean colleague is likely to be embarrassed by public recognition, it would be good to know ahead of time. Armed with this sensitive knowledge, you can anticipate his reaction and alter your behavior accordingly.

Focusing only on differences though can be very nerve-racking. Imagine that you are at an international conference and meet people from 40 different countries. You begin trying to do the emotional calculation work in your head, “Isn’t she supposed to behave like this since she is British? Or am I supposed to say this as he is from India? Or I wonder what this means in German culture?”

How absolutely mind-boggling! Often, focusing on these differences can even lead us to stereotype people. For example, the Indian counterpart you anticipate being late for meetings could turn out to be the most punctual person you have ever met.

Therefore, instead of concentrating on what may set you apart, you may want to start a conversation focusing on similarities. Taking the above example of our imagined conference, begin your conversation around the topics or sessions being discussed at the event. You may belong to the same industry as your conversation partner; you may have traveled to a similar holiday destination; you may both enjoy a particular cuisine; etc. These can all be great conversation starters. Just ask questions and find out.

I recently experienced something similar. Being an Indian, while interacting with my Japanese neighbor, I had no idea how similar our two cultures were. Only after some brief formal conversations, we came to realize that our traditions both have some deeply ingrained resemblances. This marked the start of a beautiful friendship between us and was a great way to start building trust.

Differences can only increase the distance between people. Discussing similarities can bring you closer and lay the foundations for a real relationship.

All in all, this change of focus provides an opportunity to bridge the distance and helps enhance understanding between people from different cultures. This will certainly help us work towards more supportive/collaborative work interactions too.


Sarah Curtis


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