The essence of our holidays is to transmit traditions amongst the people in our lives. Across the country this month, we come together to celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday as chock-full of tradition as the turkey is with stuffing. There are traditions around food — the main course, accompanying sides and dessert(s). Traditions around activities, like running in a Turkey Trot, chucking a pumpkin, or giving thanks while watching football that you aren’t a Detroit Lions fan. Traditions around what is discussed during the meal, whether it is the retelling of when Joey got his head stuck in the turkey, an earnest attempt to assess for what each person is thankful that year or starting the holiday season right with the ritual airing of grievances.
Thanksgiving is, at its core, a holiday that celebrates the coming together of different cultures, and each year our experiences bear that original intent out. New family members bring with them the culture of their own Thanksgiving traditions. Regional cultures based on where various family members call home mix at the dinner table. The cultural differences amongst the generations on when to cut the turkey are discussed in a polite or impolite manner.
While you might just consider it “surviving the holidays,” social scientists have a specific name for it: intercultural fluency. The definition of intercultural fluency is “openness, inclusiveness, sensitivity, and the ability to interact with all people and understand cultural differences.” And, in an age where the teams we lead and work on are populated by people with different lived experiences, the language of intercultural fluency is a power skill that is so important to be fluent in.
According to a February 2020 article in STEMM Leadership, “employers understand the value of intercultural skills to their businesses. In fact, they value these skills above many technical abilities and formal qualifications. The value of intercultural skills manifests itself in teams running efficiently, bringing in new clients, building trust and improving brand reputation. Employers also see significant risks in their employees lacking in intercultural skills. Without these skills, they fear conflict within teams, loss of clients/sales, damage to reputation and brand and cultural insensitivity. When employees lack intercultural skills, employers risk miscommunication between teams and team conflict.”
Intercultural fluency or the lack of it can either successfully feed the goals of an organization or make them as sick as a turkey cooked rare.
Getting everyone to the table
The cultural relevancies attached to a Thanksgiving spread can often act like uninvited guests to the table, unsure how they will impact everyone’s collective experience. Your Grandpa Joe expects turkey. Your vegan cousin, Isaac, expects a Tofurky. Your Aunt Rose wants her yams coming out of a can and covered in marshmallows. Your niece, Brooklyn, wants the ham hock cooked with the greens to have been raised ethically. Respecting these divergent expectations is just the start of the intercultural fluency skills a Thanksgiving host has to bring to the table, hopefully hot and well-seasoned.
Just like that Thanksgiving host, team members and leaders in today’s workplace need to develop a set of intercultural fluency skills that support respect of the varying perspectives that different ages, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic experiences bring to the table. A June 2022 article on Indeed.com provides today’s worker with the key ingredients to bring together when developing their intercultural fluency skill set. They include:
- Communication skills. How do you share information in a way that is equally understandable to all team members? How do you bring empathy, active listening skills and a keen observation of non-verbal communication cues when receiving information from others?
- Independence. How do you thrive in environments that may not be familiar to you based on your own lived experiences? Can you take initiative to gain self-knowledge when needed? Can you adjust successfully to a different method a team member brings from their own lived experience to the process?
- Problem solving. How do you respond to challenges or lead your team to solve a problem when team members’ different cultures impact their preferred approach to resolution. Can you analyze the problem in a way that establishes an agreed upon set of underlying issues? Can you be creative and resourceful in how to integrate different team members’ approach to resolving the issue?
- Adaptability. How do you integrate the different expectations, processes and ideas each team member brings to achieving the team’s goals. How well do you cooperate with others? Are you flexible in your approach? Can you exhibit patience in working to understand your team member’s perspective?
- Curiosity. How willing are you to learn from others? How interested are you in growing in your understanding and ability?
- Language skills. Can you interact effectively with team members in their preferred language? Can you communicate with team members in their mother tongue, or using cultural references that are relevant to their age, ethnicity or gender?
- Collaboration. How well do you bring diplomacy and leadership to collaborations on teams that celebrate the diversity of perspective a multicultural team brings to a shared goal?
Like a good cook who knows the perfect mix of fat, salt, heat and acid to make a dish shine, understanding how and when to employ these intercultural fluency skills can either help your team excel at solving a problem or end up making that dish that no one wants to eat, one that finds its way to the garbage at the end of the meal.
What did they just say?
Nothing can be more excruciating at Thanksgiving than watching problematic communication across cultures at the dinner table. In this scenario, dinner and dancing (at least for the snarkier, cynical family members) will ultimately feature timeless classics such as the “Great Uncle Mo Just Said What?” twist, the “Teenager Eye Roll and Affected Sigh” waltz, and the “Does He Really Just Assume I’ll Clean Up After Him While He Sits Around and Watches TV?” misogyny mambo.
Amongst the intercultural fluency skills the aforementioned Indeed article describes, it isn’t surprising that so many of them are focused around communication. How we communicate our thoughts and intentions to each other in a workplace plays a significant role in a team’s or organization’s success. It is important to be aware of potential challenges to cross-cultural communication. In a 2007 article for The Journal of Intercultural Communication, Yukiko Inoue discusses the great work of Saeeda J.A. Shah, Ph.D., at the University of Leicester, England, on this subject. Shah identifies six potential challenges to cross-cultural communication and understanding.
- Assumption of similarities. When you tell someone that they are “walking on thin ice,” or “that solution is slap,” or you make a joke about that you’ve “fallen and can’t get up,” do you assume that the other person knows what you are talking about? When we assume similarities in our communications, we open ourselves up for confusion across cultures. (Author’s note: As an aging GenXer, I’m not sure if I’ve used the slang word “slap” in proper context, so someone from Gen Z, please correct me if needed.)
- Language differences. It is one thing to know the words used in different languages but do you understand the cultural context and knowledge of when to use them? Consider languages that have differences for formal and informal settings. Are you using an informal phrasing in a formal setting, unknowingly insulting the listener?
- Nonverbal misinterpretations. Every culture has nonverbal communication styles, and the differences of how the same gesture are interpreted across different cultures is a huge opportunity for misunderstanding. Consider for instance that nodding your head up and down in many cultures indicates yes, but means no in parts of Greece.
- Preconceptions and stereotypes. Before people even begin to communicate with others from different cultures, they are bringing with them a whole series of preconceptions and stereotypes about that culture, often based on erroneous or incomplete information.
- Tendency to evaluate. We are a pattern-seeking species, so it is near impossible to expect not to bring our tendency to evaluate communication with other cultures using our already developed rules of thumb to that interaction. Americans assume others seek direct eye contact when speaking as a sign of respect. Many Asian cultures assume that direct eye contact is an act of provocation.
- High anxiety. Communication with others can often be a cause of stress and anxiety, whether on a stage or in a boardroom. That fear can often color our perception of how we think we are being understood by others or interpreting what others are communicating to us.
Being prepared to respond to these common cross-cultural communication breakdowns could be the difference between a Thanksgiving holiday with family members still being willing to be in the same room together by the end, or a project’s success or failure.
How to serve people by serving yourself
There are many ways to improve your Thanksgiving hosting skills. Take some cooking lessons. Learn directly from the guru, the great Martha Stuart. You can even call the Butterball hotline. And just like there are ways to train yourself to present your family with a better Thanksgiving experience, there are ways to improve your intercultural fluency as well.
That June 2022 article on Indeed.com provides seven steps to improve your intercultural fluency.
- Be self-aware. Be mindful of your own cultural strengths and biases that you bring to your team. Be proud of who you are and where you come from without discounting anyone else’s lived experience.
- Listen and observe. As annoying as it was when your mom went on and on about how you have “one mouth and two ears,” she was right. We gain a greater understanding of a situation and how others are reacting to it when we stop, quiet ourselves and use our eyes and ears to assess the situation.
- Educate yourself. Work to understand your team members’ cultures. Read about it, seek out videos on YouTube, even ask them directly to teach you more about themselves. Pick something that helps them feel comfortable about sharing this part of themselves, perhaps asking them to bring in their favorite “traditional” dish for everyone to try.
- Get involved in intercultural activities. Learn to salsa. Learn to make salsa. Go to a cookout (only if you’re invited). Attend a Diwali party. Work to give yourself a frame of reference that aligns with experiences your team members may view as a shining example of their cultural heritage.
- Get experience abroad. Look for opportunities to study or volunteer out of the country. If traveling is cost-prohibitive, find travel shows on the areas of the world from where your team members are born.
- Improve your cultural awareness. Try to increase your capacity to connect with your team members through acknowledging you understand a little something about the culture from which they are from. Learn how to properly use words like “slap” in a “non-slaps-giving” context. (Seriously GenZers, I need your help.)
- Take classes. If you are working with a team whose members speak different languages, take a class or purchase a language program that will help you master proficiency or even a few key phrases. Take a class on African-American history, gender studies or comparative religion. It has really never been easier to find educational opportunities to improve your intercultural fluency.
Whether you take all of these steps or just one, the only way to grow in your intercultural fluency, or your Thanksgiving hosting, is to step out of your comfort zone and increase your capacity to serve your team members, your family and your community.
The joy of leftovers
There are few joys as pure as Thanksgiving Day leftovers. For some people, it is the opportunity to have pumpkin pie for breakfast (pumpkins are a vegetable, people.) For others it might be going temporarily vegetarian by eating sweet potatoes and green bean casserole for three to five post-holiday meals. Thanksgiving with your family and friends may only be for one night, but if you plan right, you should end up with a valuable set of leftovers to feast on for at least a couple days after the event.
And just like those leftovers, the gains you make in your intercultural fluency will enrich your life outside of just the work setting. Maybe you learn that your newly found passion for the mambo also improves your blood pressure. Could be that learning to read the nonverbal cues of your colleagues makes it easier to pick up on those cues at home. It’s possible that your curiosity about your Boomer generation team member’s life experience opens up a whole new path of music appreciation for you. Like all of the power skills discussed in this series, improving yourself for successful interactions at work will pay dividends to other relationships in your life.
But remember, as an act of intercultural fluency, if someone leaves a note on their post-Thanksgiving lunch in the office fridge, please don’t eat their turkey sandwich.