During my career as a cultural awareness educator and coach, I am often asked the question ‘why do we have to change?’ Why can’t the call center, students, the outsourced staff or even sometimes the client adapt to us? Recently the Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, gave stark warnings to Chinese students studying in Australia that they should embrace Australia’s belief in Freedom of speech. This is understandable, after all, haven’t we always been told ‘When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do?’ If Australians go and live in China, they will adapt to the Chinese cultural protocol, and if Germans go to Brazil they will do the same – simple! But is it that simple? For a start, history tells us a very different story. Arguably, for example, Imperialist rulers did little adapting to their new colonies. On the contrary, they imposed their cultural traits on those who had to endure their rule. Native people were even required to adopt their occupier’s European languages, many of which are still actively used today.
So why did few settlers learn native languages and customs? As the new ruling elite, did they feel they had a right to enforce their own culture rather than assimilate to the norms of their new surroundings? Did they think their customs and languages were superior and that they are doing the natives a favor by insisting the new dominant culture was adopted, or was changing to a new set of norms and learning a new language merely too difficult? It is likely that all of the above contributed to the colonialists’ lack of interest and action in wanting to learn and adapt to their new surroundings. It is also likely that the most successful pioneers were those who made an effort to blend in with their new surroundings. Therefore many of our international stakeholders have not forgotten their recent history and have had enough of adjusting their behavior to the expectations of western powers.
Furthermore, and most importantly, an imperialist mindset can seriously jeopardize those vital international relationships that many of today’s businesses need to thrive. Imperialism is dead and international partners are today’s reality. As explained in The Economist Intelligent Unit 2012 Competition Across Borders Report, making an effort to understand the impacts of culture and, where necessary, make simple adjustments is nothing short of good business sense.
One sector that has so much to gain from a continued commitment to embracing cultural flexibility is Australia’s Higher Education establishments. In 2017 International students were Australian’s third largest export. Nearly every facet of most Australian universities are met with cultural challenges. These include educators tackling the demands that cultural diversity brings to the classroom and International students grappling with different workplace cultures during their Australian based internships. Even administration and support staff, who are often the face of Australian universities, struggle with international students’ contrasting communication styles. Finally, Australian universities comprise of academics from all over the world, yet there is rarely support in helping these newly arrived staff to deliver the education expectations of the university. Deliver the education expectations of the university! As readers, you may find this statement confusing! Didn’t I just say ‘we should be adapting to our international stakeholders?’ Students who choose to study here in Australia ultimately want to take advantage of the excellent opportunities we offer. Therefore, I am not suggesting we change our quality product. I am merely implying that helping the international student’s transition to their new environment is in everyone’s best interest.
To efficiently work in a culturally diverse environment, employees need: a) an understanding of the crucial differences they are likely to meet. b) Have strategies to help bridge these gaps and facilitate change and most importantly c) willingness to accept difference and not judge it as inferior. When all three components are practiced, employees will find their lives become easier, managers benefit from fewer incidents of escalated problems, and finally, an organization’s reputation is often enhanced. Those who successfully bridge cultural gaps may well have a higher than expected return on investment from their cultural awareness training. Ultimately this may also lead to a significant competitive edge. However, when ignored, cultural miscommunication may lead to the many unwanted consequences including the breakdown of team effectiveness, demotivated staff and ultimately loss of revenue.