Today, almost all business is global business. Cultural awareness – reading body language, knowing what to expect on your multicultural virtual teams, and understanding the importance of a relationship-building conversation before a meeting – is core for successful business people today. This post is part of an ongoing series to help readers leverage insights into the eight dimensions of culturally based work style differences, so you can raise your own global business productivity.

Culture is one of those things that you’re not aware of until you’re confronted with people who have different cultural values and ways of doing things. Because culture is inculcated into all of us from earliest childhood, we don’t even think about it. It’s just the way things get done. And since we don’t even think about our own culture, how can we be aware that other cultures can be so different?

The reason we can communicate organically in our own culture is that our underlying assumptions about “good manners,” “social and anti-social” behaviors are the same. But, imagine a situation where all of that is turned upside down. If you were taught from childhood to be deferential, polite and respectful, and you now find yourself working with someone who believes just as strongly that being direct, concise and casual is the way to communicate, you’ve got the makings of conflict—for no valid reason.

It’s not that you and your colleague actually disagree, but rather that you have a different way of expressing your views. The net result is that an otherwise brilliant collaboration is thwarted—simply because of cultural differences combined with both parties’ lack of cultural awareness.

What’s Good About Assumptions?

Assumptions are not always a bad thing. They allow you to interact fluidly within a culture because people share accepted norms and don’t have to question every action. Corporate cultures are a good example of how assumptions and shared values enable business operations to flow more smoothly.

You know that in your organization, if someone says, “We’ll meet at 10 o’clock,” you know that the meeting will take place around 10 o’clock. In your company it may be exactly at 10, or it may be five minutes after. You know that you may sit down to work immediately or you may have some time to get tea or coffee and chat before you begin work. Because you can operate organically within the context of your own corporate culture, you can make an assumption that time has the same value and meaning to all of the people you’re interacting with.

Similarly, if you’re from a direct communication culture, you can assume that when you say something is “pretty good” you mean exactly the words you’re using—it’s “good, but not great”—and proceed with that understanding.

Assumptions are a necessary and inevitable outcome of interacting within your own cultural milieu. They serve as an effective shorthand for communication. This shorthand makes for easy collaboration, allowing us to interact without having to explain and expound in detail because our innate cultural awareness gives us the confidence that, when we communicate, the message will be understood in the way it is intended.

But Making Assumptions Can Cause Multicultural Awareness Problems

Assumptions are based on a set of common values and shared belief systems. However, if you don’t have that commonality—as in diverse, multicultural business dealings--they can lead to misunderstandings, disagreements, and even disasters.

Think about the way different cultures approach time. In some cultures, time is thought of as a commodity that is controllable. We have phrases such as “save time,” “spend time.” Time is not an absolute in every culture. In some, time depends on other variables, and people don’t have the conviction that time is predictable. These are unspoken rules within a single culture that can wreak havoc if they’re assumed in cross-cultural business situations.

Likewise, in the example of communication, the phrase “pretty good” may mean various things in various contexts. In some cultures, it can mean “not good at all” to “it’s not good but I don’t want to be that blunt and hurt your feelings.”

Making assumptions also reinforces our implicit biases and makes it more difficult for us to operate inclusively. That’s why awareness of cultural differences is critical to help prevent you assuming that everyone thinks just like you!

Fortunately, Cross-Culture Awareness is Learnable

One wonderful thing about culture is that it’s learnable. What’s more, you don’t need a handbook that details every culture. You simply need to learn what cultural behavior clues to look for.

Indeed, cultural awareness is learnable because culture isn’t random and because culturally-based behaviors are observable. Just watch people; listen to them, and think about the values they’re displaying. They demonstrate different behaviors that give you clues to their deeply held beliefs and, consequently, how they want to be treated. The learnable part of culture is recognizing those clues and heightening your sensitivity so that you can adjust your behavior accordingly.

We give you a framework for doing this in the CultureWizard Intercultural Model. That model has eight cultural dimensions (recognizable behaviors) that differ from culture to culture. Once you learn the cultural dimensions, you’ll be culturally aware, and able to interact with people who have different behavioral styles with confidence.

Furthermore, as you increase that self-awareness, you'll be able to start recognizing your unconscious biases and fostering a more productive, inclusive workplace. RW3's award-winning Global Inclusion Course is designed to help professionals get started on that journey.

Learn more about CultureWizard and the CultureWizard Intercultural Model: Request A Consultation