The InterNations Team Shares Some Insights from Their Daily (Work) Life
Over 2 million members — 101 employees — 32 nationalities — 29 languages — and 5 essential tips for benefiting from a culturally diverse environment: these numbers sum up perfectly what 21 May is all about and what the InterNations Team is living every day.
In 2002, the United Nations introduced the annual World Day of Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, or Cultural Diversity Day, for short. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, this date — 21 May — was a reminder “to reject outright the theory of the inevitable clash of cultures and civilizations” and “to raise awareness worldwide about the importance of intercultural dialogue”.
It’s easy to think that such lofty goals as helping to promote world peace, or finding the perfect balance between the particularities of various cultures and the universalism of human rights, have little or nothing to do with our everyday lives. But the UN actually lists ten simple things you can do to celebrate this goal, and most of our 2.2 million members around the globe do things like sharing a meal with people from a different culture or watching a movie from another country on a daily basis.
In a way, every single person working here at the InterNations HQ becomes part of a culturally diverse environment simply by showing up at the office. About five years ago, when the InterNations Team used to be a lot less numerous, over 60% of our staff was German. Now that we have hit the magical mark of more than 100 team members, we are a curious mix of nearly three dozen nationalities.
We have therefore asked several team members across different departments — all of whom are now living as expats in Germany — what they have learned from working in a multinational environment and what sort of advice they’d like to share. Their best tips don’t only apply to an international workplace, but to the international lifestyle in general.
• “Stop taking your own culture and language for granted.”
That’s usually the first thing to happen to you once you leave your cultural comfort zone. It can be something as simple as considering whether or not to address a business contact with their full name and title, or something as complex as learning the local language from scratch.
It’s not only words that fail you, but your entire way of communicating, from familiar gestures to popular jokes: “Whenever you find yourself in the middle of a conversation where the people around you have a different sense of humor, different social references, and different views about every aspect of life, things can get a bit awkward,” says Phillipe, an International Relations Manager in our Community Management Department.
• “Think before you speak — and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
Again, your newly-acquired tendency towards reflection isn’t just due to being at a loss for words. You suddenly realize that “something that is and has always been obvious to you might not make sense to other people”.
This realization can lead to increased insecurity. How can I make myself easily understood? How can I avoid inadvertently offending my new co-workers? Have I interpreted their reaction correctly?
Just remember: most people are happy to share information about their country, language, and culture, as long as you ask politely and with genuine curiosity. And you might then become an “ambassador” for your own culture in return.
• “See things through a different lens — the good and the bad alike.”
After a while, you’ve made it through the initial confusion. As soon as you understand other cultures better, though, it’s also more tempting to start judging them. That phase can be a challenge in its own right, especially if you are frustrated with your job or are feeling homesick.
You are now able to walk that figurative mile in other people’s shoes, but you might not be always willing to. “Things can be done in a lot of different ways. You can take that personally and get upset, or you can try to see the good sides along with the downsides.”
• “Remember that you are dealing with individuals.”
To quote those classic British philosophers from the 1970s (i.e. Monty Python), “yes, we are all individuals! Yes, we are all different!”
Keeping that in mind, you shouldn’t kick off a relationship with someone from another culture by loudly voicing your stereotypes about them: “Although there is often a grain of truth in many stereotypes,” Lenore, a US expat and one of our Content & Communications Managers, points out, “that person probably doesn’t appreciate being characterized by the most obvious cliché that pops into your head.”
Moreover, people everywhere are … people. Not everything they say or do can be explained by their respective culture. Not only is each culture multi-layered and multi-faceted, but some behavior is simply due to personality and circumstance.
• “Try to come up with a compromise.”
The more diverse a group is, the greater the likelihood of a “clash of cultures” en miniature. Something as basic as what exactly punctuality means can wreak havoc with both a carefully planned meeting schedule and everybody’s mood. Then it’s time to sit down and play at international diplomacy in order to smooth ruffled feathers and to avoid a repeat performance.
“It’s all about finding a middle ground, about showing you respect each other’s opinion, whether you disagree or not, and trying to come to an understanding.” On the plus side, “international teams can be more productive and creative. Everybody brings new ideas and perspectives to the table.”
We all know that dealing with different cultures and adapting to culturally diverse environments isn’t always easy. It can be challenging to the point of frustration; plenty of people are understandably afraid of stepping outside their comfort zone. Nonetheless, everybody we’ve asked would do it again.
“I’ve developed new ways to express myself, as well as more of an ease being in an unfamiliar situation,” Katie, our Groups Manager from Charleston, South Carolina, stresses, and Nadim, our French-Lebanese Content & Communications Intern, agrees:
“You learn resilience and adaptation. The hard part is to leave your family, friends, and home behind. But your reward is that feeling of adventure, the feeling of living your life to the fullest, of opening your mind.”
And which advice on living and working in another culture, or a culturally diverse environment, would you like to share?
(Thanks to Anastasiya, Anthony, Blandine, Katie, Lenore, Nadim, and Phillipe for their American-Brazilian-British-French-Lebanese-Ukrainian view of what working at our not-quite-typically German company feels like, and a special thank you to Katie and Lenore for “modeling” for the first two pictures.)
(Image credit: 1), 2), 4) InterNations 3), 5), 6), 7) iStockphoto)