Crossing Cultural Divides

By Rebecca Self
Rebecca Self

Before I begin, you should know the facts:

Until 2005 I had an interesting & successful career trajectory, even some international experience... but had not become truly global in perspective.

Since 2005 I have worked with students, executives and entrepreneurs from most of the world's 196 countries. Clients, students, and colleagues have hailed from Australia, Bahrain, Benin, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Denmark, Georgia, UAE, Uganda, Ukraine, Qatar, Russia, Tanzania, the Philippines, Venezuela, and many, many more. 2011 took me to 21 different countries.

Working all over the world isn't exactly what I thought it would be.

When this wild, wonderful, global career began I thought the toughest working situations would come in cultures distant from my own. I wasn't sure how well I'd do leading courses in Ghana, for example, or how Middle Eastern students would take to my Media Ethics classes.

Over the last seven years, some of the richest, most interesting experiences have come in the form of surprises. There have been moments when cultural differences have been stark and my concerns about cultural distance have vanished as people bonded or explained themselves. It happened recently in a leadership development course in Accra, and in 2005 in that very first Media Ethics course I taught overseas.

Just yesterday a client explained to me that she needed to reschedule a meeting so she could join a family contingent as they paid a relative's bride price in Rwanda. I had no idea that was the conversation we'd be having!

Earlier this year I stepped in front of a group and found the man sitting in the middle of the front row had ritual tatooing on his face. He looked fierce first thing in the morning on Day 1 of his leadership development course!

Sometimes I wonder, "How did a young woman from suburban Florida wind up in these wonderful, rich cultural exchanges?"

Remarkably, what I'm learning is that the greatest cultural distances do not always lie in the easily recognizable spaces. My biggest failures on this remarkable journey have occurred when cultural differences were deep and more difficult to spot.

Training in Genoa has proved difficult for me, though I speak Italian (not well). My biggest challenge yet came with a new client whose global headquarters is less than an hour from my Zurich, Switzerland home. We seemed to connect well in the first several meetings. Under the surface, though, they have a highly unusual culture built on precepts so distant from my own working principles that I got off track with them and made missteps. In both cases, a lack of transparency tripped me up.

I've noticed in executives and students, too, that sometimes the most difficult distances to travel are those much closer to home -- between generations in our own workplaces and families, for example, or in unspoken differences in values or opinion where we assume we are the same. One Turkish client recently said his main cultural challenges, despite working in a multicultural environment, was, "Dealing with Dinosaurs." (By the end of a week-long course he said, "I need to look at why I called them dinosaurs in the first place.") The same has been true of many of my coaching clients in mainland China. After their professional questions are answered, caoching conversations frequently turn to, "How do we talk with our parents about the reality of lives in this new Chinese economy?"

What's been most challenging for you as you've crossed cultural borders? What tips and tricks have you learned along the way?

If you're interested in more on Cross Cultural Coaching, see author Philippe Rosinski's article "Coaching Across Cultures" by clicking here.