Grandma’s multicultural cuisine

I am looking at a bar chart comparing 3 countries : Germany, France and Belgium. Each country gets a score on six dimensions.

Anyone who ever read an article about cultural differences knows these 6 dimensions : they are the work of Geert Hofstede who developed them in the sixties . They are still the basis for most workshops about teamwork in multicultural teams.

I wonder : does it really add value to know that Germans are very ‘masculine’,  that Belgians love to avoid uncertainty and that power distance is greatest in France ? Can you understand a culture by studying graphs and numbers ?

Culture is shared behaviour that is passed on through generations. Each culture has its own rules. Stories, symbols and rituals help to strengthen these rules and help pass them on.  If you don’t recognise the rituals, understand the symbols or never heard the stories, it is bound to get troublesome.

It happened to me during my first dinner at my future in-laws.  On the menu: grandma’s rabbit stew. Well, it didn’t taste anything like my grandma’s rabbit stew (my own granny’s comparing favourably, I might add).   The in-jokes amongst siblings didn’t make me laugh - and that wasn’t even due to their bizarre dialect.  Language, humor, and food : a different culture can be closer at hand than you’d suspect. It was this family’s unique story and it took a while before I would feel at home in it.

Everyone has such a story : when and where you were born is the foundation.  But don’t underestimate the role of how you were raised, what you studied, the books you read, the friends you made, the different places you lived, the partner you chose… the list goes on.

Just like a family, an organisation sculpts its own culture. You build on what has been created  by others and together you make your own version.  This is easier if you share a couple of stories together :  you understand a lot without needing an explanation.

In multicultural teams you need to glue a number of diverging stories together. Insight in cultural dimension helps to do so, if only to shed light on the reason why different people understand things differently. Knowing what sets you apart from others is a first step. Looking for what connects you is the next.

But let’s be honest: sometimes this doesn’t work. Each organisation has values that are so important that you cannot deny them.  If a company values equality and respect, it can’t tolerate racist remarks or a male team member’s refusal to accept a female manager.  Values are no wallpaper : certain behaviour is unacceptable and it’s good to act forcefully to protect what matters.

Luckily, tensions in a multicultural environment are most often not a value issue but a different interpretation on what someone says or does. How do you solve that ?
Mutual respect and empathy are the way to start. You don’t need to agree with a problem to accept the fact that there actually is problem. Speak openly and authentically. Explain the effect the behaviour or words had on you.  Make sure to reduce the problem to the essential and look for a common interest.  In the end, build a consensus : not everyone needs to agree with the solution, but the solution needs to be acceptable for each one involved (check with those who are more quiet as well!). Remember to communicate the solution, put it into action and follow up.

So, next time a German, a Frenchman and a Belgian are hanging out at the bar together, it could be the start of a joke or of an enriching multicultural collaboration. One doesn’t exclude the other, provided they start talking together. Indra Partners is happy to help you spark that conversation and make the most of your multicultural organisation.



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