The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Ravi Kumar

WorldVoices: Ravi Kumar, Host

Developing Cultural Competency

On August 17, 2014, I listened attentively to Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square interview with Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (2014). She is a professor at INSEAD, described as “an international business school with campuses all over the world.” My attention to her comments was intensified by my own experience during the past decade of addressing the need for cultural competency due to globalization.

In 2004 I helped to design a college course called Cultural Perspectives in the Workplace. The purpose of that course was to acquaint students with the ever-increasing diversity of cultures they would be meeting in the work world and to give them some ideas, some comparisons and contrasts in cultural attitudes and habits, that might prove useful to them. The course was adopted into a humanities department curriculum and ran for several years with what we judged, based on appreciative student responses, to be highly successful.

What caught my attention in the Erin Meyer interview were her references to exactly the kinds of challenges and opportunities we had mapped out in preparing our course. Here is one of the statements she made in response to Zakaria’s questioning (from a GPS interview transcript available through website for GPS):

… the way that you perceive another culture may be very different than the way that another culture perceives that culture. So if you're working in a global organization you have to understand cultural relativity. Just to give you an example of this, I worked with a British and a French team a while ago, and I asked the British at one point, what it's like to work with the French. And the British said to me, well, Erin, you know, the French [are] really chaotic, they are always late, they are really disorganized. A little bit later I had a group from India who joined the same team and I asked the Indians after a little while what it's like to work with the French and the Indians said to me, well, Erin, you know, the French, they are really rigid, they are really inadaptable, they are so focused on the structure and timeliness of things that it's really unsettling for them if you change things at the last minute.

And then Fareed drew the obvious conclusion: So, you have to understand that what you perceive about a culture might say more about you than the intrinsic qualities of that culture?

His point is an excellent one to make early on in a course or seminar or training program related to cultural perspectives. So much has to do with “undoing” stereotypes.


By cultural competency I am not referring to refined tastes or to knowledge about the corporate cultures where we work. What I mean by cultural competency is the ability to interact knowledgeably and sensitively with other citizens of the world. Like any other competency, this one requires education and practice. Underlying assumptions are far from obvious. Culture is like an iceberg in that so much of it is hidden below the surface. Artifacts, rituals and behavior can be observed on the surface. What lies beneath?

Cultures are distinguished one from another first of all by place. Where are you from? The answer to that is a primary clue as to what your cultural orientation will be. Culture is something we learn from childhood. We observe how our family and community solve problems, and we learn the group’s values, beliefs, and attitudes, all of which lead to particular behaviors. That’s how we become part of a culture, which then becomes our way of interacting with the world. Our world view is conditioned at a very early age, yet we cannot take for granted that our way of seeing the world will be pervasive. Only by realizing that limitation can we begin to appreciate how others see the world.

In the last 10-15 years, our world has changed drastically. Earlier, employees and business partners were likely from the same country with similar backgrounds and speaking the same language. But globalization has changed this landscape completely. Now manufacturing and markets are global. Demographics are evolving. There is movement of raw materials, finished goods, capital, travel across oceans and time zones, telecommunications, cell phones, computers, social media, and TV. Throughout the world, this technology is common. However, cultural change doesn’t keep up with technology. Japanese, Indians, Chinese, British and Brazilians may be using the same power point system to present their ideas. But the context of those ideas may well be different.

Ideas have shaped this world. Ideas have made our history, formed religions, created music, literature and art. Ideas have produced values, beliefs, attitudes and behavior of humans. Reasons for behavior and rituals are the value systems and beliefs inherent in the culture. To name some of these, all cultures have specific manners related to eye contact, status, personal ties and loyalties, expression of emotion and the use of space. For example, Japanese businesses have large, open, crowded offices where everyone, including the boss, works. Such an arrangement shows respect for and reliance on people as a group. Americans, on the other hand, partition individual cubicles, which are personalized with photos, cartoons and plants, shifting emphasis to the individual. There are other features of Japanese manners, such as showing respect for age, bowing, and the absence of emotional expression in transacting business with foreigners, that people from other cultures may need to know as context to meeting on common ground. And so on with other cultures attempting to interact on this suddenly crowded world stage.

Many such distinctive features can be seen when studying nations and cultures, and whether one is competently acquainted with the differences may prove very important in business and personal interactions. You may be full of ideas and still find it difficult to manage interactions with people from around the world. To be effective, you need effectively to communicate your ideas. And that communication depends to a large extent on how much you know and intuit about the persons with whom you want to establish relationships.

Upcoming columns will explore some suggestions for recognizing, respecting and building on cultural similarities and contrasts for more effective communication, not just in the business world but in personal interactions as well.