In today’s world, we see a lot of cultural barriers at the workplace. Thanks to globalization, people work in increasingly diverse environments, which means a mixture of cultures under the same organization. Sometimes, this can do more harm than good if people choose not to get along.
Cracking the code to cultural barriers however is as difficult as counting all the stars in the sky; there will always be something that goes unnoticed. Cultural barriers also exist pretty much everywhere, from the workplace to school and the local gym. Even at your local café, the act of tipping can be seen as necessary or something to be avoided depending on which country you live in.
Although there is no single answer to cracking the code of cultural barriers, there are some practical things you can try out in order to make the most out of your time at work, and even gain some useful skills along the way.
It has become even more important to appreciate and learn about different cultures in order to fully appreciate the place you work in. Understanding is a big part of successful communication – for example, knowing that there are over 10 language dialects spoken within China, or that being British could mean coming from England, Wales or Scotland. Don’t even get me started on how many dialects and sub-cultures there are within Great Britain alone.
Do as much research as you can on the city or country you currently work in, and there are a wealth of online resources to use, and friends and family to ask. Knowing whom you are getting into bed with, as they say, is one half of the equation to overcoming cultural barriers at work.
But research is not enough to help you. The other half is to live out your understanding in practice. There is no better way to immerse yourself in a new culture than to meet the people currently living it. Using the pantry, so to speak, is a way to informally meet and get to know colleagues during work. For example, British workers love drinking tea throughout the day and so, often frequent the pantry to make a cuppa. You may find a great chance to bond over small chat about weekend escapades in this setting. If no such common room exists, having informal meetings in your office, at your desk or the local coffeehouse is also a great way to get to know others.
If the cultural barriers at work are language related, this does not mean you have to take ten-hour lessons a week and learn to speak like a native. However, it always helps to know some basic phrases that you can use with a smile. Even a simple “¡Hola!” can make a whole lot of difference, because others will appreciate your sincerity in being approachable. However, if not using the local language is seriously hindering your ability to work with your colleagues, then it may be worth finding a tutor or language exchange group after work.
There are bound to be certain foods and activities that are commonly location specific, such as heading to a karaoke bar after work in Japan or a pub lunch at work in England. If you aren’t accustomed to these practices, go and try it out. Likely, you will enjoy it or you will hate it. Either way, you’ve gained a greater appreciation of what your colleagues enjoy doing and perhaps learn to love it or live with it as you continue working alongside them.
It is also important to remember your own values and limits however – if you are a vegetarian then politely refusing meals with meat is fine. Or if you don’t drink, but work where work relationships are sometimes made alongside heavy drinking, as with some Chinese companies, you can refuse to join. Make your values known in a firm yet respectful manner, by accepting these practices with a nod, smile and a polite ‘no, thank you’.
Remember that ultimately whatever cultural norms exist, you are not bound to conform. Rather, appreciating your differences and building on things you have in common is the key to working alongside any culture in the world. Not everybody will want to befriend you but at least you will have gained a first-hand understanding of a different culture, at both your workplace and city.
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