10 Essential Tips for Navigating Different Cultures During Your Career

One of the best parts of being a language coach is working with people from all over the world almost every single day. Because of this, navigating different cultures has become second nature to me. My clients often ask me for the magic formula to skillfully maneuver between different cultures. My answer: there is no magic formula. If there were, I’d put it in a bottle and sell it for a lot of money! No, there’s not one magic potion to help you develop an instant understanding of different cultures. Much like practicing a language, there are some strategies to help you culturally move with ease between countries as disparate as China and Brazil.

The strategies that make it easier to move between cultures are all built upon a solid foundation of attitude and experience. They compliment each other and all of my recommended tips below will not work without them.

Developing an attitude of acceptance, flexibility, and curiosity will take you far in terms of navigating different cultures. This kind of attitude serves as a foundation for what I like to call a “positive growth perspective.” We position ourselves within our interactions with others as students willing to learn.  

A flexible, student mindset takes you away from an attitude of “I don’t understand it, it must be wrong” to one of “this is new for me, let me observe it and try to understand”. You can see where the former attitude would hinder cultural navigation.

Experience is not something we’re born with. Only through the passing of time do we gain more of it. We also, hopefully, learn to understand ourselves and each other better by examining our experiences and what they’ve taught us. Before engaging with other cultures we must realize the way we experience the world is just that: the way we experience the world. Our views are relative and subject to change.

There’s an old question, “does a fish know it's wet?”. We’re the fish! The world has been shaped by the culture we were born into. Judging others based on what we think is right or wrong, for example, is not the key to cultural understanding. Culture is merely one way to understand others but human beings are far more complicated than that. In the end, we need to realize that every single one of us is unique. Gaining experiences and cultivating an awareness of them will serve you well in this endeavor. 

With attitudes adjusted and experiences properly examined,  you can incorporate these 10 tips into your day-to-day to become great at understanding and working with people from different cultures than your own: 

1) Avoid stereotypes. All Americans love to wear red shirts. I know this because I saw a group of teenage boys wearing red shirts on the metro today. Does that sound silly to you? It should! Turns out they were on their way to a Nationals game. Though it can be easier to rely on stereotypes and pre-conceived notions — what you think you know about another culture — it’s a trap. If you catch yourself believing you know something about another’s culture, ask yourself where the information came from. Research the stereotypes associated with the culture. Societies are comprised of individuals and there’s always more to the story than merely red shirts.

2) Check your own perspective. When you think of tattoos what comes to mind? A biker? An outlaw? A prisoner? Or a high-ranking member of society? If you’re part of the Māori culture in New Zealand, you would think of someone of high social standing and importance. Tā moko are the traditional body and face tattoos of Māori tribes. Always remember that the norms and manners you take for granted are relative, random, and fluid. They’re not absolute and eternal.

3) Bring a sense of humor. Don't take yourself too seriously, and don't take others too seriously. Learn how to laugh together. Anyone engaging with another culture has likely experienced an embarrassing moment or three. Don’t be hard on yourself for trying! Remember the student mindset. For practice, say this to your German friend on a hot summer day “Ich bin heiß”!

4) Be compassionate. As noted in tip number three, don’t be so hard on yourself, and don’t be hard on others. Interacting with different cultures is a learning process and mistakes will be made. Don’t let a few uncomfortable moments stop you from trying. We’re all a work in progress.

5) Learn from others. One of the best ways to learn the ways of a different culture is going right to the source. From debunking stereotypes to getting tips on body language, interacting with someone from a different culture is your fast pass to becoming culture-savvy. Learning can be done outside the traditional classroom. Some alternatives: dance classes, cooking classes, language meet-ups, weddings, sporting events. Get creative

6) Learn how to listen. Listening is a skill that you’ll use in practically every situation. Listening well can help you get acclimated to another culture more quickly. Are people speaking quickly or more slowly? What are the different tones? When someone from a different culture invites you over for dinner, what topics are they discussing? How about in that foreign language film? Did someone tell you your hand gesture offended them? Once again, listening is not just a part-time skill. Every day presents a million opportunities to learn about another culture — just keep listening.

7) Approach your counterpart as an equal. Remember: if someone is different than you, you’re different from them. It sounds simple because it is.

8) Be open to criticism. Be kind with your own criticism and learn how to receive it. If you do a Google search for “things I hate about another country”, you’ll see criticisms for just about every country on earth. No culture is perfect, including your own. There are positive and negative sides to all cultures. Understanding this will help you be more adept at giving and receiving criticism.

9) Start a cultural awareness journal. What situations are weird, strange, or alienating to you? When do you experience the behavior of others as rude? Writing it down will help you articulate your feelings about the culture. If you’re comfortable, sharing the journal with an intercultural communication coach can be really helpful.

10) Put on that "new cultural" filter like a brand new set of glasses. Remember that a) your experience in the world is relative b) others might experience the world differently. You don’t have to have a pair of these to navigate between cultures with ease. Practice seeing the world from a different perspective and it will become second nature for you too.

Marike Korn