4 Ways to Develop Cultural Sensitivity

Cultural openness and sensitivity are crucial to your success as a global mobility professional. The assignee you move from his country to the US must be able to trust and communicate with you, and this can happen only if you show him that you are respectful of his values, beliefs, and traditions, no matter how strange they might first appear to you.

Negotiations have been known to suffer, or even break down because of the lack of cultural sensitivity on the side of one or both parties. If a VIP in particular feels offended, then it becomes doubly difficult to re-establish trust and communication. For example, in dealing with a Chinese assignee, don’t ever make the mistake of putting him in a position where he feels like he is begging or asking for a favor. One very popular hamburger chain’s ad  showed  a Chinese customer on his knees asking the franchise supervisor to accept his expired discount coupon. The ad was immediately pulled after the insulted Chinese raised a very loud outcry.

Here are four tips to develop cultural sensitivity that will make interactions with your foreign assignees pleasant, harmonious, and productive.

  1. It may not be enough to do your homework by just reading up on the subject.

    Prior to even relocating your assignee, it would be best if you talk to one of his countrymen who is already working in the U.S. and has adjusted to our corporate culture.  Get his insights on his initial difficulties especially when it came to cultural differences.  Ask about the more sensitive issues like family culture, gender behavior, dietary restrictions, and religious or sacred rituals. Then get tips on how your interviewee successfully managed his transition.

  2. Make a conscious effort to respect your assignee’s faith and traditions.

    American culture has managed to separate the tenets of state and church, and there are times we restrict our own individual practices within the four walls of our place of worship or our holy days.  But some cultures may not necessarily share that distinction.  For example, devout Muslims say their sacred prayers several times a day, and in a kneeling position toward the direction of their holy city of Mecca. A Muslim manager who has his own corner office may not find the transition difficult in your company, but another who works in a cubicle alongside others may need a private room to do his prayers.  His work schedule should also permit it.

  3. Observe and practice your assignee’s corporate etiquette.

    We Americans normally shake hands to communicate trust and openness as a way of greeting.  Italians and Russians hug.  Filipinos embrace and kiss on the cheek.  Other Asians may be more formal and just give a polite bow.  Corporate culture can also affect the way that your assignee responds to management or how they perform their roles.  The more traditional Koreans and Japanese respect hierarchy to the point that they will not openly dispute with their superiors. As a global mobility professional, you might have to introduce them slowly but gently to the American corporate culture that promotes individual expression and openness in communication.  

  4. Study the language.

    Listen to language tapes, take weekend classes, practice your newfound tongue with a native speaker in your community. This is an investment that will pay off. It will not only improve your communication with your assignee, but it will help you understand his milieu and his social context.  The more seasoned global mobility professionals speak an average of three to four languages aside from English, and this skill has helped them rise up even higher in the international career ladder.

Cultural sensitivity is a skill that a global mobility professional needs to develop to excel in his assignment.  It is also an art that can be rewarding in itself, as he opens up his mind and heart to the foundations that helped shape the psyche, values, and soul of his assignee.