What do you do when you find yourself in a place where you don’t understand the behavior or attitude of someone from another culture? Or when communication is fraught with misunderstanding? It can happen while on vacation somewhere across the ocean. Its also likely to happen at home with a neighbor, or at work with a co-worker or customer. Maybe you’re meeting someone for the first time at a social gathering and you don’t know if you are expected to shake hands, hug, bow or kiss. What do you do?

We all know how embarrassing and uncomfortable cultural miscues can be for all involved. Some people have no idea as to how to respond. However, others have what we might call the “intercultural skills” to navigate these situations with relative ease.

Intercultural skills are the ATTITUDES, ABILITIES, and BEHAVIORS that enable people to engage and function effectively in a variety of cultural contexts.

I have identified 21 InterCultural Skills. Anyone can improve their cultural dexterity by applying these skills.

7 Helpful Attitudes – motivation and intentions

Effective intercultural interaction begins with the right attitude.  Without it we tend to react to differences by judging others based on the perspective of our own culture.  The following 7 Helpful Attitudes lead to a recognition of positive intentions instead of negative conclusions.

  1. Optimism/Confidence– Those who interact well among people of another culture believe that cultural encounters can be embraced, understood and worked through. Without this perspective, you’re not likely to make progress. If you lack confidence, stick around this blog – we’ll baby-step you along your way!
  2. Appreciation of differences – We often meet differences as something to fear. At best, many people merely tolerate differences. However, those who are effective view them as beneficial.
  3. Comfort with uncertainty – Many intercultural situations include a level of confusion and ambiguity. You just don’t understand what’s going on! A mindset that anticipates and accepts this fact is tremendously helpful.
  4. Open-mindedness – In a new culture, things don’t always mean what you think. Maintaining an open-mind in response to unfamiliar behavior is a much better response than judging the behavior.
  5. Cultural Humility – No attitude is more destructive to cultural engagement than thinking that your culture is superior to others. Understanding that all cultures have good and bad aspects is more constructive way to engage
  6. Curiosity – Opportunities to learn about new cultures are enriching and honoring to others. Understanding this, curious people are eager to learn and understand cultural differences.
  7. Assume Goodwill – When you don’t know what a cultural norm means, do you assume the worst? A more constructive attitude, among people you have reason to trust, is to assume goodwill.
7 Keys for Learning about Culture – knowledge that provides explanation.

Good intentions are not enough. Of course, it is important to have the 7 Helpful Attitudes in your toolbox. But, without knowing some things about another culture, you’re likely to find yourself confused – unable to connect.  To avoid this, it often becomes necessary to learn about another culture.   The following 7 Keys to Learning about Culture describe practical things that you can do to gain the vital information you’ll need in an intercultural situation.

  1. Explore Your Cultural Identity – A growing awareness of your cultural identity and how it influences you to behave may be the single most important skill you can have in relating to people from another culture.
  2. Study Cultural Values – Studying and understanding the basics of Cultural Values prepares you to meet and interact effectively. I present five Layers of Culture on this blog. However, the third layer, Cultural Values yields the most benefit. So start there.
  3. Study a Culture Up Close – You may not be able to go deep with every culture you encounter. However, it can be extremely helpful to learn all that you can about one particular culture. The experts call this an “ethnography”. Doing just one ethnography will reveal the depths and richness of cultures which is likely to improve cultural encounters in general.
  4. Observation – Actively noticing cultural norms including details of interactions, symbols, and behaviors is an indispensable skill. Not everyone intentionally does this. Others, notice cultural differences but too quickly move beyond observation to judgement. Be an observer, to be a learner – not a judge.
  5. Engage Cultural Interpreters – In many situations there are people who, to some degree, are ‘bi-cultural,’ meaning they have a foot in two cultures.  With their understanding, they are often in a better position to interpret behavior. Talk to them — they can clear up a lot of confusion!
  6. Ask Questions – Appropriate questions about one’s culture can provide insight, create connection, spark lively conversation, and resolve misunderstandings.  Be careful, however to ask questions that are sensitive and be sure to ask in an appropriate way.  Your questions should not seem like an interrogation.
  7. Reframe Situations – Negative interpretations of cultural behavior often need to be challenged and considered from the point of view of the positive and healthy cultural values that are behind them. As a learner, you will want to develop this ability.

7 Actions for Engaging – practical things you can do in an intercultural encounter.

I hope you have embraced the 7 Helpful Attitudes and the 7 Keys to Learning Culture. The right attitude and knowledge are both good.  But effectively engaging and solving problems requires adapting and adjusting behavior in real time.  The following 7 Actions for Engaging are practical things that you can do in an intercultural encounter.

  1. Adapt behavior – Many intercultural encounters require someone to flex, adjust and adapt in order to accommodate differences. While it may be necessary for others to make the adjustment, your effort to adapt first is likely to pave the way for them to do the same.
  2. Plan Interactions – Learning some of the basic customs and planning to use some culturally appropriate behaviors can enhance connection, show respect and raise the probability that you will understand and be understood. 
  3. Cultural Participation – It is fun and very beneficial to participate in cultural events, holidays and celebrations. Taste the food, play the games, take in the music, engage in the activities. Doing so can enrich your understanding of the unique beauty of another culture and build trust.
  4. Develop New Social Conventions – It can be very meaningful to use appropriate greetings and social customs.  For example, learn to bow as a greeting, instead of shaking hands where that is the norm. Look for cues about basic manners and etiquette and practice them as you are able.
  5. Check for Accuracy – Don’t commit “assumicide.” It can be very important to verify and make certain that you are not acting on false assumptions or incorrect understanding.
  6. Find Language Barrier Workarounds – We often interact with people who have learned English as a second language. Adjusting how you communicate will be greatly appreciated. Speak slowly and avoid idioms. Here are a few language tools:
    – For using simple vocabulary visit http://splasho.com/upgoer5/.
    – The App Google Translate can be helpful in a pinch.
  7. Learn from Mistakes – You will mess up and make mistakes.  Everyone does.  It helps to not take yourself too seriously.  Forgive yourself, and others, for embarrassing blunders.  Each one is an opportunity to learn.