Cross-Cultural Fluency- – What it Means and Why You Should Improve Yours

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One of the most exciting aspects of working in the diplomacy, national security or other segments of U.S. Government is the opportunity to work with experts from other nations. In the private sector, working with your global partners can multiply your success on a variety of levels. But engaging with international partners through our own cultural lens usually won’t get the results you want. Understanding a given culture – beyond its language or history – is essential to optimizing your success. Yet native English speakers are often considered some of the most ineffective communicators in cross-cultural environments. If you’re interested in the role cultural fluency can play in enhancing your ability to truly connect with your international counterparts, here are a few things to know.

What is Cultural Fluency?

There are loads of definitions out there about cultural fluency – from the abstract to the facile. For our purposes, this pragmatic one works best:  cultural fluency is your ability to understand the basic norms and perspectives of people from other cultures, recognize the context and cues in how they communicate, and adapt and respond in ways that help you achieve shared meaning. From this definition, we can see that cultural fluency isn’t really about linguistic fluency- though the lexicon of a language can reveal insight about its respective culture. It’s more about the delivery, non-verbal cues, gestures and references to cultural identifiers that are foundational to understanding a person from another culture. This can include national identities, and the relationship to Americans or other nationalities. Also, notice that you’re the one who does the adapting, versus relying on your international counterpart to do so.

Why Cultural Fluency Matters

In his book, “Leading with Cultural Intelligence:  The Real Secret to Success,” David Livermore discusses the importance of cultural intelligence (CQ) in a global business environment. He suggests that that CQ is a better indicator of success than your work experience, technical expertise, or other stunning entries on your resume. It’s not enough to know your craft, think strategically, or be an excellent project manager. And while strong communication skills are a plus, they’re only a positive factor if you have the ability to view the dialogue through a cultural perspective different from your own. And of course, there’s the obvious risk:  government and private industry leaders continue to regularly share expertise with international partners, and few things can torch a collaborative effort as quickly as an undercurrent of cultural insensitivity.

What Failure Looks Like

We sometimes assume that since we frequently travel to do business with a global partner (or host them on home soil), or that technology allows us to connect virtually via video chats and other platforms, that any intercultural gaps are bridged with vis-a-vis interaction. Yet time and again, we hear stories of problems, mammoth or miniscule, that can be traced back to a failure to alert on cultural cues – linguistic, behavioral, or otherwise. In the case of USG efforts, these setbacks can result in lack of trust or transparency with our international partners, which can limit access or opportunities for future collaborative efforts. In private sectors, it can translate to scrapped projects and lost profits that could ultimately make the global partnership no longer worth the cost or risk. That’s a shame, considering the value of joining international counterparts who are working on solutions to common problem sets – and how easily derailed projects could get back on track if a bit of cultural fluency was applied.

What Experts Say

Academics and industry leaders have researched the effects of culture on professional teams. In Europe, Geert Hofstede has spent more than five-decades researching and writing about cultural from a business and anthropological approach.  In his book, “Cultures and Organizations:  Software of the Mind,” he presents the concept of “cultural dimensions” as a digestible way of understanding key aspects (dimensions) of varied cultures. Even more useful are the comparisons between cultures – highly valuable the next time you find yourself part of a multi-national team. In Asia, Soon Ang has been working on the problem since before the Y2K era, where she studied how well the business industry’s most talented minds gelled to tackle the legendary Y2K software glitches that were expected to bring the globe to an IT all-stop on January 1, 2000. The short story: the team of experts from diverse countries didn’t readily get in sync to get their mission accomplished, and a failure to successfully communicate cross-culturally was a key reason why. One of books Ms. Ang co-authored, “CQ: Developing Cultural Intelligence at Work,” has been a popular resource for leaders who want to navigate through, and optimize their outcomes across, the intercultural terrain.

So the next time you find yourself leading or serving on a multicultural team, these resources should help you get a head start on understanding not only specific cultures, but how you might adapt and effectively respond to their cues to achieve better communication overall. And in this mix, don’t forget to consider how your own native culture influences how you’ll fit into the team. Good luck!

Melissa Jordan is an Executive Writer at a US Government agency. With more than 20 years in professional communication and over 16 years of experience working in cross-cultural environments, her most valuable lessons have been learned by trial and error.

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