How to handle work in a multicultural environment?



A matter of perspective

How would you feel if you would meet somebody for the first time and that person would spit at your feet? For a lot of people the answer to this question would be “Angry, maybe even aggressive!”. Spitting has a very negative and offensive connotation. Well, there is a group of people in Africa who would answer: “Oh, very happy! It means that I just made a new friend!”. This is because, for them, spitting at each other’s feet is the way to greet somebody. If you find this strange, think what would be that group’s reaction when somebody they meet would try to shake their hand. Same as yours now!

Greetings, distance between people, ways of touching the other, eye contact, the way people drink, eat or talk, all these are governed by different norms in different cultures. Sometime in the history of each culture it was decided that some gestures are desirable in given contexts, some are acceptable, some should be avoided or some are even offensive or aggressive, even if they don’t actually physically hurt anyone. A man shaking hands with a woman is courteous in some societies, somehow accepted in others and even totally unacceptable by the norms of different cultures.

Different cultures around the world have not always been so connected as they are now and their evolution was quite different. For this, each society decided or was forced to decide because of different external factors on different rules that members were supposed to follow. The important thing is to be aware that this huge diversity of norms exists and to be ready to accept them as a normal element of life.

So, for next time, try not to directly feel offended or aggressed when somebody with a different cultural background is getting too close to you, speaks louder than you consider normal, is reluctant to shake hands or even spits at your feet. Instead, take a second to understand if this is not actually a normal behaviour by that person’s social norms and, if it makes you feel uncomfortable, explain this to that person in a polite way.


Remember that what is unacceptable to you can be perfectly normal for someone with a different cultural background!




Practical exercise

Different greetings

Each participant will receive a small piece of paper on which a typical greeting of various cultures is presented. These can be more “European-like” (e.g. shaking hands, kissing on cheeks, hugging, etc.) or uncommon for the typical European (e.g. rubbing noses with the other, like the Eskimos). Going randomly in the room, participants will be asked to greet the others using the given instructions. The debriefing will focus on how some typical form of communication in one culture can mean a totally different thing in another and how this should be taken into consideration while interacting in a multi-cultural environment

Questions for the debriefing:

- How did you feel greeting or being greeted in so many ways?

- Why were some greetings more "acceptable" than others?

- How would you feel if you were from another culture and someone would greet you the "European" way (e.g. by shaking hands or kissing on both cheeks)?

- Can you name situations in which you found yourself in the middle of a cultural "misunderstanding"? Can you imagine some?

Here you can download the different greetings:

Different greetings across the world


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