U.S. workplaces become more diverse, cultural sensitivity becomes more essential. An insensitive remark about a colleague’s culture can create resentment and distrust that don’t go away. Insensitivity can make company statements that value diversity look hypocritical. Having the skills to work with people of different cultures is key.
Cultural awareness knows that there are multiple different cultures – based on religion, ethnicity, nationality and other factors – that have different attitudes and outlooks. Cultural sensitivity involves accepting those differences without insisting your own culture is better, or that everyone should do it your way. Cultural-sensitivity skills are sometimes called cultural competence, or the ability to work alongside people with different cultural attitudes and behaviors and to do so effectively.
Communicating in a diverse, multicultural environment can be awkward. For example, someone might make a sweeping and inappropriate generalization to a coworker about what “his people” are like, causing discord. More subtle problems can involve the differences in how people from different cultures communicate.
A gesture that’s acceptable in one culture might be meaningless or offensive in another. What’s considered the “normal” space between two people standing and talking is different in different societies. In some cultures, criticizing or correcting your boss openly is much less acceptable than it is in the United States.
Posters or employee handbooks can provide employees with some basic guidelines, explaining what the employer expects. In some cases, training sessions might be necessary so that employees can avoid treading on cultural landmines.
Building and running teams are valuable professional skills. Doing this in a multicultural workplace is more challenging and more valuable. A team-builder has to communicate well and be aware of cultural conflicts that crop up, even subtle ones. The team builder also has to be aware of her own biases, and accept that in a cultural disagreement, one culture’s values aren’t automatically correct.
When To Be Flexible
Flexibility in dealing with cross-cultural matters is another valuable skill. For instance, in the United States, we often take for granted that we typically don’t have to work on national holidays such as Christmas and Independence Day. Cultural sensitivity includes respecting other people’s important days and realizing that they might need them off.
If there are instances when you have to be inflexible, you need to communicate why. Some cultures are more relaxed than others with less clockwatching. If you need someone to complete their tasks on an airtight schedule, you need the communications skills to explain why that’s important.
The Importance of Cultural Sensitivity in Business Dealings
Companies often employ foreign workers and court foreign parties as their operations go global and they take advantage of new markets in other countries. This makes cultural sensitivity in business more important than ever. An ignorance of a country’s cultural norms can offend important clients, alienate employees in other countries and even lead to a reduction of product or service sales.
One-on-One Cultural Sensitivity
Cultural sensitivity can play an important role on the personal level. Companies courting employees or executives from countries with other social norms or beliefs would do well to respect those beliefs. A failure to do so can lead to everything from personal offense taken to certain cultural insensitive moves (such as not taking into account a person’s cultural dietary restrictions during a business lunch) to the failure to do business entirely if a company consistently offends the culture of a potential business partner.
Cultural Sensitivity and Products
Being sensitive to cultural considerations is also essential to selling products in other countries. Many firms have lost money when selling their products in other countries based on their failure to understand the culture. For instance, when debuting a film called “Hollywood Buddha,” a film studio ran into serious trouble in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Burma because the film lacked cultural sensitivity towards Buddhist symbols traditionally held in reverence in these countries.
Cultural Sensitivity and Language
When businesses need to sell products or produce advertisements in foreign countries, often these use the host country’s own language. Being insensitive to the nuances of a foreign language can create real cultural relations problems for companies. Marketing efforts for an alcoholic beverage called “Irish Mist” ran astray in Germany because the company behind the product failed to notice that the word “Mist” in German means “manure.”
Cultural Sensitivity and Employees
As globalization has companies frequently outsourcing work or recruiting global professionals from a range of countries, many firms have instituted cultural sensitivity training and expanded the range of languages into which their sales aids and brochures are translated. A failure to appreciate cultural differences like language and traditions can alienate foreign employees and, in the case of materials not translated into their language, actually prevent them from doing their jobs.