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Is cultural knowledge more important than language skills?

13 Feb 2021 4:45 PM | Kristina Ganchenko

Reflection on why cross-cultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes are essential to successfully communicate and navigate the surrounding diversity.

You and I are witnessing ever-increasing diversity, connectedness, and interdependence of world cultures and economies. Despite political borders, the world became a rather small place. The rise of the internet and digital communication technologies like Zoom, WhatsApp, and Skype obliterated the political borders, literally.

Just think about your experience: did you have foreign students at university? Did you share an accommodation with international students? Do you work with someone from a different culture at work? Do you socialise with people from various different cultural backgrounds? Are there any immigrants in the country you live in?

If you ask me, the answer will be YES to all of these questions.

But how can we successfully deal with this cultural diversity if very frequently we all speak different languages and are seemingly so different? One of the immediate answers that comes to my mind is we need a common language. This solution (lingua franca) has probably been around since the Babel tower incident, if you believe this story. Indeed, a common language, very frequently English, allows us to talk to each other, exchange ideas, and pass messages. In other words, we are made understood. The business gets done. What else do we need?

This solution may seem so simple as, irrespective of cultural background, all of us engage in the same mundane activities: teamwork, leadership, negotiation, communication to name the few. So as long as we can speak the same language and are made understood, it will be sufficient.

However, from my experience of working, studying and living across three different countries, it became apparent that language skills and the fluency are simply not enough to gain success in international encounters. The reason is that what we do massively depends on our cultural background. Our judgments, preferred communication and decision making styles, ouractions are largely affected by hidden cultural codes embedded in the system of values, norms and beliefs that go way beyond linguistic abilities.

Let me share a couple of examples from my own experience. ⁣When I came to the UK for the first time, it was a real challenge to reprogram myself and obey untold social, cultural and linguistic norms that govern a big part of the British society. For illustrative purposes I’ll talk about smiling and cultural codes that surround this seemingly simple activity. What can go wrong here?

In reality, the meaning of a smile varies across cultures. To be honest with you, I had to learn to smile at strangers in the UK: at people I know nothing about during street encounters, in the University corridors, to shop assistants and so on. This is one of the norms where smiling is considered to be a sign of politeness, an untold social ritual so to say.

It is quite different to the cultural norm in Russia, where smiling at strangers is not a common practice, especially in larger cities. Rather, a smile is considered a sign of familiarity, an authentic expression of positive emotions. Happiness, most of the time. Hence, smiling at a stranger in a British way can raise a genuine question: “Do we know each other?”, “Is something wrong with me?”, “What’s so funny?”, or “Are you crazy”? In fact, we have a saying that can be translated from Russian as “smiling without a reason is a sign of foolishness”.

Another difference I would like to highlight concerns the practice of feedback giving. In my home country Russia, as well as in India, where I lived for two years, feedback (positive or negative) was given pretty much directly – politely, without offending, but more or less directly. I didn’t have to read between the lines, or guess what I needed to improve at university or at the workplace.

After I started working in the UK, one of the biggest challenges was a different approach to communication and, in particular to feedback giving. In general, communication in the UK is indirect in its nature, especially with regard to saying negative things. In fact, finding out what was wrong or what needs to be improved has usually felt like a treasure hunt because the majority of the feedback given by my British colleagues was cushioned by positive language and understatements.

Looking for subtle cues indicating what needs to be improved took me a while to decipher, and despite living in the UK for almost 9 years I am still learning. Some of the cues suggesting that something is not right could be as follows: “I only have a few minor suggestions”, “that’s not bad”, “quite good”, and my favourite of them all “interesting”. In Russian context I would probably take all those comments at face value.

Cultures also can affect things such as tolerance to change, emotional expressivity, body language, humour, attitudes to personal space, approaches to teamwork, decision making, interruptions, silence, relationships and many more. These subtle and frequently hidden differences hold a potential for cross-cultural misunderstandings, and serious conflicts.

Clearly, despite being an essential condition of working across cultures, having a common language is just not enough. Understanding how language is used in social context, and the ability to navigate hidden cultural influences is no less important. In fact, cross-cultural competence is listed as one of the 21st century skills that employees consider extremely valuable.

So developing socio-cultural understanding through acquiring intercultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes is essential to successfully communicate and navigate surrounding us diversity. Finally, this is my strong belief that successful communication without cultural knowledge is simply not possible.

What do you think?

The article is published as part of my participation in Young SIETAR Mentoring Program.

Kristina Ganchenko |kristina.intercultural@gmail.com


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