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How Do I Know I Am “Culturally Competent” Enough?

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

You know you’re on the right track when you’re confident, and you can communicate authentically and effectively.

I’m often asked by travelers and global business people alike, “How will I know when I’m culturally competent ‘enough’?”

My answer is always the same, “You will be culturally competent ‘enough’ when you can comfortably and confidently navigate across cultures, achieve your goals, and not cause offense.”

However, you can spend a lifetime learning and exploring, and still never be completely competent in a culture other than your own. Heck, sometimes even that’s hard. So, how can you get to the “enough” point? Many of us work or travel all over our interdependent world, and we all want to be successful and achieve our goals. Most of us want to be polite, but without knowing another culture — its customs, beliefs and expected behaviors — we can be highly offensive, often completely unintentionally. Someday, we will all board flights again, and — while we might be doing our traveling “electronically” these days — we need to be culturally prepared, no matter what our mode of transportation. To begin to become culturally competent “enough,” it’s important to know your own culture, and realize that it’s just one of many across the world. Take a deep dive into your own backyard. You can’t really begin to understand and appreciate other cultures if you don’t know your own. Then compare your culture with the one you are working with most, or the one you want to understand. Have you ever been misunderstood during a virtual, or in-person (remember those?!) meeting? Perhaps you mistook a deafening silence from a colleague who is from another culture as an issue, when really silence is a sign of respect. By the same token, it’s likely that someone from another culture mistook your enthusiastic chest-pump for something totally different. What reaction did you get when you ordered a cappuccino in Milan at three in the afternoon, an eye roll, right? Okay, then, read on. BTW, it’s a good idea to learn the nuances and etiquette for the next culture you want to visit. In Italy, don’t order a cappuccino after 11 am. It’s considered breakfast. If you want specialized coaching and training on cultural competence and awareness or etiquette, I’m here to help. Outside of a professional coach, a good place to begin your journey toward cultural competence is with a little research. Learn different cultural models. These models are very helpful when trying to understand why someone said, “yes” but they really meant “no.” Nobody wants to suffer culture-shock. For instance, do you live in a high or a low context culture? Are you multi-active or linear? What is the power distance? There are several cultural models you should explore, including the groundbreaking work from Edward T. Hall on High and Low Culture, Richard D. Lewis’s The Lewis Model, which groups countries into a very useful triangle and groups called Muti-Active, Linear and Reactive. The late Geert Hofstede’s model deals with Dimensions of Culture. These models help you understand where you’re coming from as you relate to another culture, and where they are coming from. For example in a meeting with Finns, Japanese and Americans, the American will probably talk the most, enthusiastically, and will receive limited reaction and a lot of silence. The silence should not be mistaken for disagreement, or boredom, but rather an expression of respect and considered thought. If you had not spent some time learning about the other cultures, you might leave the meeting feeling defeated, when actually you were a big hit! The more you learn, the more you can alter your behavior authentically; this allows you to better communicate your message. Cultural competence is really about being curious and respectful enough to learn about another culture’s values, beliefs and behaviors so that you can successfully communicate and achieve your goals — whether socially or in business — politely. So, be culturally kind.


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