Libby's Blog

Cultivating Cultural Curiosity

cultural_curiosity"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
-Mark Twain

I certainly don’t mean to sound like a snob, but I think Mr. Twain was spot on when he said this. However, I have met people over the years who have traveled to many places on this beautiful planet of ours and are still quite narrow in their thinking. I find that puzzling. How can that happen? Perhaps it has something to do with a person’s ability to be culturally curious.

Cultural curiosity is a wonderful thing. It is that which lures me down the nondescript alley several blocks away from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is the wonderment that forces me to watch the rice paddy farmer place each plant into the water and mud of his field outside Taichung, Taiwan. It's that same curiosity that makes me wonder how the dish in the photo (above, right) can be so popular with the locals. And yes, cultural curiosity entices me to try Balut in the Philippines…even if I do indeed know what it is.

To live in another culture and never truly experience it means we never really make the transition. Unknowingly, we place our lives on hold while living our lives vicariously somewhere else.

So does cultural curiosity just happen? Can it be developed, and if so how? It seems like some people are just born that way. It’s in their genes to ask questions, to seek out the unknown, to explore and ask questions. But not all culturally curious people are born that way. For most of us, it begins by taking a small risk. Maybe it is a short day trip from San Diego, California to Tijuana, Mexico...and we like it! The shopping was fun. The food didn’t make us sick. And we found the people to be friendly and helpful. For some it may be moving 'cold turkey' to another country as a career move that begins the cultural thirst. But regardless of what triggers it, it must be cultivated. It needs to be nurtured and fed until that curiosity becomes part of who we are.

Did you know that cultural curiosity is one of the essentials for successful international living? Without it we are fearful of the new culture and paralyzed by our lack of understanding. With it, we develop potential for fun and excitement, learn a lot more about the similarities of people and cultures rather than just seeing differences. With it, we transition faster and with more satisfaction when we move new to a place.

So, over to you! Can cultural curiosity be cultivated, and if so, how? I’d love to hear some of your stories and how you ventured out and took that big (or small) risk, in the name of cultural curiosity!

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Accompanying Spouse: Live a Little!

Accompanying_SpouseTrainLiving internationally can be exciting, challenging and lonely - especially if you are the accompanying spouse.

Please note I refer to the partner of the individual drawing the paycheck as “accompanying spouse”. I am neither calling you a dangling spouse nor a trailing spouse as I have heard you referred to before. You are a partner, a husband or a wife. You are an essential part of the employee that the company hired to work in an international setting. You are not some useless appendage.

Notice that I also did not refer to you as the “non-working” one. That is because I know that the accompanying spouse does indeed work. You may not draw a check, but work? For sure! Living in another culture, I mean really living, takes work. If your partner is at work all day, who takes care of the day to day business of life? You do! Banking, grocery shopping, paying bills, getting repairs taken care of, keeping the house in order and following up on school issues if there are children with you. This all takes time and energy. The list could go on forever, and those are just the regular day to day things. Sure, these things need to be done regardless of the culture you are in, but when you layer in the fact that you are now doing this in an international setting, the stress rises exponentially.

Have you ever thought of it this way? You have become the one in your family who is designated to become the culture expert. You learn the language for all the tasks you do. You learn some of the written language to navigate your way around the city and to figure out how to shop and even to cook! You become an interpreter of non-verbals of the culture far faster than your spouse who is trapped in the office all day. This again requires work, effort and implies a great deal of stress. But it also means you get the fabulous job of discovering all the great museums, the best restaurants, the cultural celebrations and certainly the best places to go on a weekend!

So do us both a favor and try not to just survive the experience. Live a little! Find a friend who is in the same position and explore, explore, explore! Make your international opportunity the experience of a lifetime. Your entire family will be richer because of it. Now that’s an important job!

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3 Tips to Reduce Time to Proficiency

Staff in transitionIf you are sending personnel to work in a guest culture, you will no doubt be thinking about how quickly they can settle in and become profitable for your organization. But have you thought about how work dynamics might differ in a guest culture? How do you best prepare your valued personnel for such a move? Here are three ways to make that move both meaningful for your staff in transition and more beneficial to your organization:

1. Identify the unique cross-cultural dynamics and allow for reasonable proficiency delays

North American businesses usually expect newly hired or promoted personnel to reach job proficiency within 90 days. This is of course only feasible if they have received excellent training and integration into their new work environment. Proficiency will naturally take longer to achieve if new job responsibilities are highly specialized or if inadequate or unsuitable training is given to the new staff.

When employees are moved globally, time to proficiency takes longer because staff must also learn how to navigate the guest culture, tackle language and custom barriers, and figure out how life and work is done there. These adjustments are layered on top of both the organization's and the individual’s expectations of job performance, not to mention personal struggles with their own (and their family's) normal transition process to the new culture. Such variables must imperatively be discovered, monitored, and planned for. Only after your staff has tackled these issues will they become secure and productive expatriates.

2. Give your staff the right preparation and the right ongoing support

When creating the training program and content, consider learning styles, personalities and temperaments - and how your people might respond to the rigors of working and living in another culture. The trainer must be able to offer clear, tailored and memorable information and deliver it in ways that fit how your personnel will learn.  In this process, it is critical that transitioning staff be given time and activities to process and respond to, and express their concerns about transitioning and meeting job expectations.

This might mean adopting blended learning methods that work best with the people being trained such as e-learning, self studies, and online media resources in addition to live, group training. It might mean segmenting training and learning with periods of on-the-job practice to maximize learning retention. Smaller doses of alternating preparation and performance may in the long run result in far greater contentment and thus an increased performance.

Finally, appropriate training must adjust to the variables found in the guest culture. Course creation, delivery, and follow up must be geared to the specific country and culture and how individuals may need to be supported and managed in the new setting. If your organization expects proficiency within a short period of time, you won’t only place great value on preparing staff but you’ll take the same care in preparing reviews and supporting staff once abroad.

3. Create realistic time to proficiency goals

Standard, one-size-fits-all training and placement of personnel rarely works when moving people into new job responsibilities in new cultures.  There are simply too many cross-cultural and employee variables to contend with. Likewise, setting goals and evaluating the people you send to a guest culture cannot be done in the standard way either. Realistic, custom goals according to the unique constraints of the culture and individual will not only be more achievable, but a much more accurate way to measure time to proficiency. Your expert consultant should be able to help the organization train your trainers or HR staff and work with supervisors to roll out realistic time to proficiency goals. That is a good time to align and adjust mutual expectations, and set up the best follow up support program possible for your valuable staff.

If you send your staff well and keep them buoyant, they will give you back a boatload of positive results!


In Summary:

  • Identify and plan for the unique cross-cultural dynamics and their effects on your staff’s transition and productivity.
  • Think specifically about your staff and where they are going when creating a training program. Don’t forget to support them when they are in the guest culture.
  • Set realistic expectations according to the needs of your personnel and their constraints in the guest culture.
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Transitioning well for Success

It has been said that more than half of all international joint ventures will fail within two or three years due to 'cultural myopia' and 'lack of cultural competency' - not due to any lack of technical or professional expertise.

A critical reality, often missed by organizations sending personnel into cultures other than their own, is that cultural competency requires much more than extra compensation or better reading material. Cultural competency, essential for both individual productivity and an organization's bottom line, is not achieved at the head level. Cultural competency happens with the recognition of the profound human experience of transition and how it affects us as individuals.

Employees transitioning need not only information about the transition process but an understanding of themselves at each step of the process. As a trainer friend of mine simply puts it, "Nobody knows what they don't know until someone who knows tells them." Until they can recognize their own responses to the transition process and acquire skills to address them and take care of themselves, they probably will not be productive or strive for quality in their work for very long.

Supervisors overseeing staff in cross cultural transition need the same information, understanding and insights about the transition process in order to brief, support, and debrief their personnel regularly and consistently. Supervisors must facilitate and operate in a transition paradigm as they lead their team across geographic and cultural boundaries.

While employees must gain awareness and apply new learnings in order to deliver their work, they will also deal with the process of transitioning in life, thought, and motivation. While they gain ability to observe and adjust to getting business done in culturally appropriate ways, they must also gain the ability to understand themselves as they really are while adjusting and re-establishing their identity and equilibrium.

These global complexities and 'lack of cultural competency', if not addressed from the vantage point of the transition process, will too often end poorly in spite of the time and fervor invested. Only when understanding the transition process will personnel and the organization they represent become effective, balanced, and productive in a successful venture.

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