'Difficult' colleagues from other cultures

I often hear concerns from people about their manager or colleagues - I am used to that. But the interesting part is that the difficult behaviour they describe is often described as being due to that person’s cultural background. I hear comments such as, “He is that way because he is Indian / Saudi Arabian / Dutch. All men from that culture are patriarchal / highly-emotive / authoritarian.” (You can insert your own challenging person’s culture and labels  here if you wish).

It’s interesting how often behaviour that we find challenging is explained as being due to a particular person’s culture. It is certainly true that a person’s culture has a major influence on their how they express themselves, deal with frustrations, and relate to others. Culture provides the rules for what is acceptable behaviour for any given group – behaviour that we may well find challenging. We often assume behaviour is ‘difficult’ when it is simply different to what we are used to. 

It is important to remember that behaviour is not solely culturally-determined. Behaviour can also be influenced by personality factors, as well as stressors and other challenges, individuals may be dealing with. It is a huge step to live or work in another country, particularly if the culture or language is unfamiliar. If your difficult person is a new migrant or asylum-seeker, their difficulties may be compounded by significant loss or trauma. 

Cross-cultural specialists refer to a ‘culture shock’ or ‘startle response’ that we can all feel when exposed to different cultures and people who look or behave or look different to us. People from significantly different cultures can feel the same thing when they come to my country, Australia. So, what can we do to relate more easily to people from different cultures who we find challenging?

One of the best ways to become more informed about a particular culture is to spend time with people from that group. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask people how they like to be addressed, for example. Being genuinely curious about how things work and monitoring how your own behaviour is received, will help you to make adjustments so you can relate more easily. 

A word of caution though: generalisations about cultures can be helpful, but are not always true. You might think that in my own country, Australia, there is a single culture here. However, migrants have arrived from over 200 countries since European settlement and 25.6% of current residents were born overseas. There are also over 600 different clan groups or nations of indigenous peoples. Although there are certain norms that cultural groups can share, there are also distinct differences. If you are unsure, speak to someone who can give you an informed opinion.

But there are also efforts that can be made by them. There are times when you need to let individuals know the best way to work with you or how things are done at your workplace. Let them save face, of course. You can assume they are not intentionally being difficult – most of the time, you will be right. Even when you are not, nobody likes to have negative assumptions made about them. You might find yourself using phrases such as …

You may not be aware that (a particular behaviour) comes across as …’|
That's not the way things are done here …’
What I find helpful is …’
‘The best way to get what you need is to …’

You can also shape behaviour by developing some shared norms or ways of relating for your team or workplace. Workplaces sometimes do so by developing a list of Shared Values and Behaviours that will be practised by everyone in their team. They are best developed collaboratively, when this is possible. 

You can also shape behaviour through systemic changes – changing things is often easier than changing people. For example, you can make it easier for quieter people to contribute through small group discussions. With people from cultures that value power, treating them with additional respect, give them choice or control when possible, or arrange someone in a position of power to deal with them.

Three of my team members are based overseas – in Indonesia, the Phillipines and Lebanon. So, we not only have potential cultural and language differences, but due to their location overseas, there are possible miscommunications due to the absence of vocal tone and body language. 

I try to pre-empt misunderstandings by saying they are likely to occur from time to time, to please let me know if there is something I say that is unclear or comes across the wrong way. And when miscommunications do occur, I try to normalise the misunderstanding, apologise if needed, and respond with good humour. 

Although we are speaking about differences between cultures and potential challenges as a result, it is important to remember the commonalities that we all share: That  misunderstandings will occur in all workplace relationships. We all have to make adjustments to work well with others. And we all have needs for belonging, fun, respect, and achievement.


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