Cultural Blindspots

Cultural Blindspots

Yesterday a colleague shared a familiar story.

He works in investment finance.  Frequently he engages with individuals coming from a vast melting pot of countries.  In this particular case, he was talking with an Israeli company who has on staff financial advisors from Lebanon, Malta, and Singapore.  Good ideas were being discussed, but my colleague seemed to bump into walls when he spoke.

“It was like I put my foot in my mouth every time I said something.  I just couldn’t get my points across, and I think I may have lost a business opportunity.”

We all have these moments.  Whether we work in a local company with employees coming from Mexico or India, or if we work in a multi-national organization requiring managers and employees from multiple countries to collaborate on a specific project, cultural bumps happen.

These bumps can be large or small, but always they impact our productivity, our effectiveness, and our collective morale.

The good news is that these bumps can be mitigated.  Most articles will talk about the culture of a place – words like high context, low context, time differences, etc – words that can be helpful theoretically, but not particularly helpful from a practical standpoint.  The place to start, in fact, is not looking at the other; it’s looking at yourself.  The best way you’ll begin to understand the other culture and how to avoid breakdowns is to uncover the blindspots in your own culture.  Understanding what you take for granted, what seems “normal” and just-what-people-do – these are the areas we don’t typically see.

Sometimes we recognize a blindspot when we land in a country and culture radically different than our own…or oddly, even more so when we move between cultures that would seem to be most similar to our own.  Many times I hear American tourists after visiting Toronto or Winnipeg say “something was just off.”  Yes, indeed – as similar as the Canadians and Americans may appear to be, there are subtle differences that can make – or break – a relationship.

This relationship matters acutely in business.  Whether we are pitching a deal or working with new colleagues in a foreign land, we want to be successful and effective.  Assuming you can learn what you need to know by reading a quick article will likely lead to missteps and breakdowns.  My advice:  learn your blindspots first; then, start to see what the “other” sees in you.