How to be culturally sensitive

Countries in a certain continent or region may be mistaken to have similar cultural contexts. For example, the culture in Tanzania is different in many ways from the culture in Kenya. Likewise, Germany and the Netherlands have different cultures. Having work experiences in one country and being used to the culture, does not automatically mean you can relate to the culture in another country. This brings about a head-scratching moment for leaders. It is also increasingly becoming a topic in leadership training; how do you achieve cultural sensitivity?

Do‘s and Don’ts

Imagine, you are a manager starting a new position in a foreign country. If you are new to the cultural setting, you are basically the ‘guest’. Unfortunately, guests often make the mistake of evaluating the ‘host’ culture by its familiarity to their own. For example, when travelling to Somalia, a non-Somali woman might find it odd to wear a headscarf. And yet that is the norm for women in the country.

When you use your own culture to evaluate others, this creates ethnocentrism. This is the opposite of cultural sensitivity. In order to be culturally sensitive; don’t judge the host culture through what is considered ‘normal’ behaviour in your own culture.

In the book ‘Acclimated to Africa’, author Debbi DiGennaro explains “….when we quit expecting others to act like people do in our country, we are free to expect them to act like they do in their country…”(page 8). 

As a leader or a manager working in a multi-cultural team, make deliberate effort to educate yourself about the culture of the host country. This will increase your understanding of the reasons behind certain behaviour. It enables you adjust your thinking to the realities of those around you. Hence, in order to be culturally sensitive; do create a willingness to adapt to the culture in which you find yourself a guest.

Adapting in a multi-cultural setting

Adapting is not just trying out the local food or learning a couple of words in the local language. It has to do with the deeper and profound aspects of a culture. This includes; why in some cultures etiquette instructs people to eat with only the right hand, or the subtleties behind the fact that some cultures do not appreciate direct negative feedback.

That is so weird!

Michelle de Rijck had a telling experience with her two brothers in 2014. While her elder brother lived and worked in South East Asia and she lived and worked in East Africa, her younger brother had never lived anywhere outside of The Netherlands.

During a holiday in Malaysia, her younger brother noticed the way a Malaysian man laughed about a certain situation that was not specifically funny (in his eyes) and commented; “That is so weird!”  She and her elder brother corrected him by saying “It is not weird, it is different”. They understood that the laugh actually meant that the man felt uneasy at that moment. This example shows not to judge a culture you are not familiar with, since you might miss the core reasons behind certain behaviour.

Thus, it is imperative to get familiar with the cultural setting you are working in. Consistently read about it and discuss with your colleagues the behaviour considered appropriate in your workspace. This will go a long way in helping you to manage your multi-cultural team effectively!

If you are interested in knowing more about being culturally sensitive, MDF can incorporate this topic in a tailor-made leadership training. Please contact Michelle or Jacinta for a consultation