Cultural Awareness: The #1 Soft Skill in a Multicultural World


multicolored abstract painting with words _hard times call for soft skills

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s recent Future of Jobs 2020 report, the Coronavirus pandemic has pushed companies across the world to accelerate the pace of digital transformation and automation, which is likely to lead to a shift in the skills in demand over the next years, 

The report lists critical thinking and analysis, complex problem-solving, and self-management skills – such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility – among the top skills researched by global employers in the run-up to 2025. 

These 10 workspace skills are: 

  • Analytical thinking and innovation
  • Active learning and learning strategies
  • Complex problem-solving
  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Creativity, originality, and initiative
  • Leadership and social influence
  • Technology use, monitoring, and control
  • Technology design and programming
  • Resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility
  • Reasoning, problem-solving, and ideation

Among these valuable traits, the ones we highlighted are likely to benefit from improved cultural awareness.

Let’s see how.

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First Off: What is Culture?

Society conept with small multicolor game pieces

Are culture and nationality the same thing? By no means.

Culture is a complex of knowledge, beliefs, and values ​​shared by a group of individuals, which unite them and make them a society

And each individual belongs not to just, but at least one culture. 

If you live in the US, you certainly share a number of beliefs and values with your fellow countrypersons. Maybe you are of Native American, European, African, or Asian descent, which definitely makes you part of a second, specific culture. You may speak Spanish as a mother tongue, be part of the Jewish community, regularly attend functions at the local mosque, or practice Buddhism… yet another culture you’re part of. And so on and so forth.

What characterizes a culture is that its norms define the roles of the people who are part of it and provide a frame of reference that makes people's behavior predictable and understandable to others belonging to the same culture. This behavior is perceived as familiar, safe.

If somebody comes from a different culture, their behavior is no longer predictable and understandable, hence the (often unconscious) mistrust and, sometimes, the fear. In other words, the clash.

What is Cultural Awareness?

different fish swimming opposite way of identical ones. Courage and success concept. Blackboard background

Cultural awareness (often referred to as cultural sensitivity or cultural competence) is defined as the knowledge, awareness, and acceptance of other cultures and others' cultural identities

Recognizing and accepting diversity is the first step towards leaving one’s comfort zone and, as we all know, looking at things from a different perspective fosters creativity and innovation. It helps find original solutions and respond with flexibility to situations that could otherwise be stressful and disruptive. Most of all, it helps deal with, and understand people from different cultural backgrounds.

Quoting the late Kofi Annan, ex-Secretary-General of the United Nations for almost 10 years: 

“Tolerance, inter-cultural dialogue and respect for diversity are more essential than ever in a world where peoples are becoming more and more closely interconnected.” 

Kofi Annan’s words are certainly wise and noble, but they are also based on deeply practical considerations.

Cultural Awareness Is a Skill. And an Asset.

ink illustration of muscular male arm against pink background

Indeed, any company wishing to grow and thrive in the global market needs to understand and overcome a series of cultural barriers. This happens every day, in a number of situations. 

Here are a few examples:

  • Developing new products/services.
  • Relations with foreign business partners.
  • Selecting new foreign partners/distributors.
  • Launching and organization of international business initiatives.
  • Interaction with foreign clients (or prospects).
  • Organizing and attending international events (conferences/fairs).
  • Preparing marketing and advertising material (texts/graphics) for a foreign audience.

Cultural awareness helps develop effective and adequate intercultural communication, which is essential not only when dealing with partners/clients/suppliers from different cultural backgrounds, but especially within the workplace.

Promoting Cultural Awareness in Your Workplace

colorful illustration of two hands in fist coming together as sign of teamwork

Nowadays, most workplaces include people with diverse cultural backgrounds. The effects of poor intercultural communication in a multicultural workplace include: 

  • misunderstandings and poor collaboration among employees;

which inevitably leads to: 

  • hostile working environment, consequent employee turnover, and low productivity;

and, eventually:

  • loss of clients and lower profits.

Nothing particularly noble-minded about this.

Improving cultural awareness (and intercultural communication skills) is a key business strategy for companies that want to grow and prosper in today’s world.

After all, nobody likes to work where they are not appreciated or respected. If they do, it’s just until something better comes along, and seeing a trained human resource go is a tangible loss for any business.

How can this be avoided? By working on the following aspects:

  • Coaching employees: providing training programs to help them work effectively in a culturally-diverse environment
  • Communicating in a clear and respectful way: making sure corporate messages and indications are clear for everyone and taking into account different communication styles and customs 
  • Celebrating diversity: in a multicultural workplace, allowing employees to celebrate their religious holidays is an excellent way to make them feel respected and valued
  • Anti-discriminatory policies: defining how employees with different cultural sensitivity are expected to interact with each other

Cultural Generalization vs. Cultural Stereotypes

gender stereotype toys_ left side with soccer ball and truck toys against blue background, right side with bunny teddy bear, miniature plate and fork and fuchsia blowdryer against pink background

Talking about the characteristics of a culture entails generalization. Does this mean that we are stereotyping people? No, we’re not.

Generalization stems from the objective observation of behaviors within a certain community. Vice-versa, a stereotype is a pre-established opinion of people or groups and the result of hypergeneralization, oversimplification, or false deduction. 

Why are stereotypes so frequent and hard to overcome?

Because they serve 3 basic functions:

  • saving "psychic energy" 
  • integrating the individual into the group 
  • self-defense

“Judging America: Photographer Challenges Our Prejudice By Alternating Between Judgment and Reality”, is a series of portraits created by Joel Parés, a U.S. Marine-turned-professional photographer.

In his photos, Parés presents two portraits of the same person: “the first image is not necessarily what you actually see, but it is what you categorize them in your head without knowing who they truly are. The second image explains the truth about the person and how incorrectly they were judged initially.”

The purpose of this series, says Parés, is “to open our eyes and make us think twice before judging someone because we all judge even if we try not to.”

Because “saving psychic energy” is, in our opinion, never a good idea.

Understanding Culture = Respecting the Individual

gouache bottles of different colors against blackboard

As Erin Meyer, professor at INSEAD Business School and author of “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” writes: 

“It is quite possible, even common, to work across cultures for decades and travel frequently for business while remaining unaware and uninformed about how culture impacts you. Millions of people work in global settings while viewing everything from their own cultural perspectives and assuming that all differences, controversies, and misunderstandings are rooted in personality. This is not due to laziness [...] they believe that if they focus on individual differences, that will be enough.”

The problem is that if you interact with others assuming that culture is not important, you will end up viewing them through your own cultural lens, and judge them accordingly. This attitude (believing that one’s own culture is in some way superior to other cultures) is called ethnocentrism.

Each individual is unique. And it is also true that when working with people from different cultures, one should never make assumptions about individual traits based on a person’s country of origin. 

But this certainly does not make learning about cultural diversity unnecessary. 

If your business success depends on your ability to work with people from different countries and cultures, you need to be aware of cultural differences and respect them.

Awareness and respect – and enhanced cultural sensitivity – are the key to success when working in an international environment.

Marketing and Stereotypes

Global businesses have always used cultural elements in their marketing and advertising initiatives. 

Dolce & Gabbana, one of Italy’s most celebrated fashion brands, has been known for using its “Italianity” to present and sell its creations.

In this 2017 advert for their fragrance “The One” featuring Emilia Clarke, the Italian designers chose to portray the Game of Thrones actress on the streets of Naples, with people smiling, singing, dancing... and, of course, eating spaghetti.

A whole parade of stereotypes, skillfully portrayed by Italian film director Matteo Garrone.

This campaign is an example of the so-called STEREOTYPE MARKETING. i.e., marketing initiatives based on generalizations or common perceptions about behaviors and values of certain demographic groups.

Companies often rely on demographic qualities to target specific customer segments, but the risk of stumbling on uncertain or offensive stereotypes is high. If this happens, campaigns simply don't work and may result in negative public backlash.

Dolce & Gabbana and the Chinese Fiasco

That stereotypes are a double-edged sword is evident in another campaign launched by Dolce & Gabbana in 2018.

We are talking about the “D&G Loves China” campaign, where three unfortunate videos saw Chinese model Zuo Ye attempting to eat pizza, pasta, and cannoli with chopsticks. While Chinese folk music played in the background, a Mandarin-speaking voiceover said, “Welcome to the first episode of ‘Eating with Chopsticks’ by Dolce & Gabbana”.

Everything looked and sounded wrong, from the embarrassing sexual innuendo to the voiceover, which mocked Chinese pronunciation.

No wonder the campaign was a complete shipwreck for D&G. The ads were labeled as patronizing, “offensive” and stereotypically “backward”. Gabbana was so piqued by the comments that he replied from his Instagram account, pouring salt in the wound

Eventually, D&G’s maxi fashion show in Shanghai had to be canceled (with one hundred models ready for the catwalk and 1,500 guests including local celebrities and influencers), with a considerable loss for the brand.

The mishap triggered a boycott in China and Stefano Dolce and Domenico Gabbana eventually had to plead for forgiveness in a cringing video.

This happened in 2018. Years (and a few other cultural blunders) later, the brand still hasn’t fully recovered from the accusation of being culturally insensitive. On some occasions, the absence of D&G creations from the red carpet even sparked rumors of the fashion duo having fallen from grace among people in the star system.

After all, celebrities are known to choose their designers carefully, and wearing a certain brand is not just about liking their “style.” It’s about making a statement and saying to the world: “this is who I am and this brand represents me.”

Lacking cultural sensitivity is not the kind of label a fashion icon would like to be associated with. It’s not even “controversial”, it’s just plain negative. And, unfortunately for D&G, not something one is easily forgiven for.

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Cultural Awareness and Leadership

blue ink illustration of captain's hat against pink background

Global leaders need to be culturally competent if they want to succeed.

In other words, they need to be able to operate in cross-cultural situations, valuing diversity and always staying aware of others’ as well as their own cultural identities.

No easy task. This skill requires deep self-awareness of one’s own cultural (often unconscious) biases and the ability to manage them. 

Diversity offers a whole series of benefits to businesses, creating innovation, a growth mindset, a broader talent pool, and also stakeholder alignment. 

However, leaders sometimes believe a multicultural (diverse) environment can slow down operations and the decision-making process, compared to a homogeneous team coming from a common ground and sharing a common frame of reference.

Employing diversity standards requires leaders to develop better cultural competency and to appreciate the effects of a multicultural environment on team communications and dynamics.

A Cultural Awareness Tool to Assess Your Cultural Profile

chess figurine in front of mirror. the reflection in the mirror is a smaller figurine. symbolizes mirror image and self perception

It’s not rare to find seasoned managers harboring oversimplified ideas about how people from other cultures think and behave. 

Sometimes they believe knowing about differences in communication or decision-making processes is enough, but there’s more to culture than just that.
Erin Meyer’s assessment published by Harvard Business Review is an interesting tool to know yourself and your cultural profile.

Knowing where you stand is key to understanding others and the first step towards achieving awareness and making sure your interpersonal skills stand the cultural diversity test.

Cultural Awareness in Healthcare

medical blue background with different accessories_ stethoscope, syringe, thermometer, and pills

So far, we have seen how cultural competence can benefit businesses in several aspects:

  • fostering cultural connections between employees
  • improving professional relationships with partners, clients, etc.
  • avoiding potentially disastrous communication blunders

There is, however, another sector in which being culturally aware is absolutely essential, and that is healthcare.

The way people talk about their own bodies and health and how they relate to other people talking about them is highly influenced by their cultural background.

Beliefs and values need to be acknowledged and respected.

By developing cultural awareness and providing culturally competent care, healthcare professionals (doctors, nurses as well as administrative staff) can improve the overall satisfaction of patients from minority groups and even obtain better outcomes from treatment.

Does Your Global Content Reflect All This?

white question mark against yellow background

Ask any serious Language Service Provider and they will tell you that knowing a foreign language is not enough when it comes to translating.

In-depth knowledge of the language plays a role, of course, but trying to strike a chord with somebody is impossible if you do not take into account their cultural background (ethnicity, religion, etc). That's how people's emotions work.

Good translation requires cultural competence (i.e. cultural awareness plus a set of rules and practices for the application of the said awareness to a practical task, in this case, translating), and this is why we at LingPerfect want our translators to be native speakers and acquainted with the target culture in order to match linguistic and cultural knowledge.

Choosing this approach can make you succeed where others fail. It is up to you, but down to us.

Contact us today to learn more about our language services and how we can help you make your communication culturally aware.

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