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How to build cross-cultural skills for a diverse society

Seven key benefits of cross-cultural coaching


US society is made up of people from many different backgrounds. As a newcomer, how can you prepare to interact and communicate effectively with such a diverse population?


Whether you are preparing for cross-cultural teamwork, market expansion, or relocation to the US, your professional and personal success will be closely linked to how well you can communicate with people. After all, communication is at the core of every interaction and cooperation.

US Flags

Communication involves expressing your own thoughts and getting your message across. It involves correctly interpreting information shared with you and responding to it appropriately. It involves switching perspectives and anticipating what may come. All that requires learning about cultural norms, prevalent communication styles, and common behaviors.


“But how can you talk about communication norms? Not everyone communicates the same way, especially in a country with a diverse population like the US.” That’s an argument someone might make.


It’s a legitimate argument. When you’re dealing with a complex society consisting of more than 330 million individuals from a range of different backgrounds, you cannot simply draw up a list of cultural norms and behaviors that everyone will follow all the time.


But you can prepare for handling interactions and communication successfully.


Dimensions of diversity


Diversity means that things are not homogeneous. It can refer to various dimensions, such as ethnicity, national origin, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, or disability. It’s also about understanding and appreciating what makes us different.


Here are two examples of how the US is growing more diverse:


In August of 2021, CNN published a news report titled, “Census release shows America is more diverse and more multiracial than ever”. In the report, the authors sum up results from the 2020 Census, highlighting the dimension of race and ethnicity: “People of color represented 43% of the total US population in 2020, up from 34% in 2010.”


Linguistic diversity is another dimension growing. As reported in this article published at the end of 2022,The number of people in the United States who spoke a language other than English at home nearly tripled from 23.1 million (about 1 in 10) in 1980 to 67.8 million (almost 1 in 5) in 2019, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report.”


The United States does not have a national language, like Austria and Germany do. English is, however, by far the most widely spoken tongue and therefore often referred to as the “de facto national language”. Spanish is the second most widely spoken language and, according to estimates, used by more than 41 million people in their homes. That, in turn, is linked to the above-mentioned dimension of ethnicity, as the share of those identifying as Hispanic or Latino has grown to almost 20% of the entire population, according to the CNN article mentioned above.

English US
Picture: census.gov

Diversity and “American culture”


So, how does diversity affect culture? Is there even such a thing as “American culture”?

Diversity and a shared culture are not mutually exclusive. It’s not one or the other. Diversity is a feature of US culture. That is visible to anyone traveling through the US in the people, accents, foods, celebrations, artifacts, and behaviors encountered.


Grocery store sign

As I’m writing this blog, I’m in Southern California. There are some noticeable differences to Central Florida, my current home. There is a much greater number and variety of Asian restaurants here due to the substantial Asian-American population. At the business event I attended yesterday, people easily switched between English and Spanish. Hispanic Californians constitute almost 40% of the state’s population. And here’s another interesting example of diversity by origin: Driving around the Los Angeles area, it's hard not to notice the number of Armenian churches. My quick internet research shows that LA has the largest Armenian-American population in the US.


These are just a few of the ways in which California is diverse. Florida has a different diversity composition. And yet, much is the same. If I went to other parts of the country, I would have a similar experience: there is quite a bit that’s distinct and there is much that feels familiar.


If we go beyond the visible and obvious and look at culture as a value system that guides our actions, many people in the US, share similar values and beliefs. Examples include the importance of personal freedom and control over one’s environment, a high degree of individualism, the belief that individuals can shape their own future, a pragmatic outlook, and a “can-do” attitude. These values and beliefs find their expression in the ways in which people go about their everyday lives and do business.


They also find their expression in the way people interact and communicate with each other.


The norms of communication


In every culture, there are norms that guide what people say and do. They refer to verbal and non-verbal aspects of communication, such as formality, directness, sensitive topics, time, or personal space to name just a few. They result in cultural tendencies and common practices.


As someone who has been traveling back and forth between the US and Austria for the past 25+ years, I have observed many cultural tendencies in the US which are not common in Austria or other European countries.


Here is an example of a behavior a visitor to the US may notice right away: the openness to light conversations in public places. These brief exchanges often start with a compliment and can happen in the supermarket, at the bank, at a social event – or even on airplanes, as I just witnessed on a flight from Chicago to Orlando. As people were boarding and finding their seats, I heard one of the flight attendants address a woman walking down the aisle: “I absolutely love your coat!” The wearer of the coat responded with equal enthusiasm: “Thank you! I just got it. It’s really comfy.”


I have a hard time imagining the same exchange on a Lufthansa or Austrian Airlines flight.


How we learn communication


The way we communicate is deeply influenced by our culture and the society we’ve been raised in. What we do and say (and don’t) is the result of socialization – of intensive training and learning.


In part, learning happens through observation and imitation, first in the home and then increasingly in the world outside one’s home. In addition, we are actively taught how to interact appropriately and communicate effectively. An important “training place” is school.


By young adulthood, most people have a pretty good idea of the rules and norms of the society they live in. Going through life, we continue to refine and expand our skills, for example in college or the workplace.


The cultural range of behaviors


Communication norms and patterns change over time. Still, there is a consensus within societies on what is “normal” and “acceptable” in the present time. There is a range of appropriate behaviors and patterns for countless situations and contexts, even in a diverse society like the US. And most people act within that range, especially in professional settings. That does not mean we completely give up our individual freedom to make choices. As Erin Meyer says in her book The Culture Map (2014): “The culture sets a range, and within that range each individual makes a choice.” (p. 20)


Not everyone in the US chitchats or gives compliments to strangers in public, as in the airplane example above. There are certainly Americans who are not comfortable with this type of small talk. You are, however, much more likely to see that communicative behavior in the US than in Austria or Germany (and a range of other countries).

Communication norms and patterns are not hard rules that are followed by all the people all the time. They are tendencies, behaviors that occur with relatively high frequency, and things that are likely to happen.

Seven key benefits of cross-cultural coaching


Here is the good news: Cross-cultural coaching/training can help you learn how to handle interactions competently. You can learn what is generally considered suitable, what has a high likelihood of being effective, and what will most likely not work - and why that is the case.


Here are seven key benefits of cross-cultural coaching/training. Each one will positively impact your communication effectiveness in a diverse society.


1. Better understanding of society

Cross-cultural coaching/training can help you better understand the other society as a whole and the diverse groups that shape it. It can help you become aware of important cultural values and beliefs and how they may affect your work and relationships with people from that culture.


2. Heightened cultural self-awareness

Cross-cultural coaching/training isn’t just about other people’s culture. It can heighten your awareness of your own cultural lens and culturally influenced thinking and behavior. It creates cross-cultural links. That is the basis for making the adjustments necessary to ensure more effective communication.


3. Preparedness for concrete situations

Cross-cultural coaching/training can give you skills for concrete business and life situations. For example, in a meeting-skills coaching, you can learn culture-specific guidelines for meetings. In a presentation-skills coaching you can learn about culture-specific audience expectations. In a family relocation training, the family members can learn how to navigate the new school system. These insights can be applied directly to concrete situations.


4. Autonomy through transferable tools

Cross-cultural coaching/training is not just about learning for specific situations. A coach cannot predict every situation that will happen. An experienced coach can, however, work with you on likely scenarios and reasonable expectations. They give you transferable tools so you can handle new situations on your own.


All hands in

5. Ability to reflect and learn

Sometimes things don’t go well despite your best efforts. Cross-cultural coaching/training can help you develop the ability to reflect upon such situations so you can improve for future events. It can help you develop intercultural sensitivity that goes beyond a specific culture and that allows you to communicate and cooperate better with diverse groups of people .


6. More confidence and impact

Cross-cultural coaching can help you build confidence. Interacting with people from a different culture can easily push the limits of one’s personal and cultural comfort zone. We may have to perform new behaviors that seem strange to us. We may have to communicate in ways different from what we are used to. That can cause feelings of insecurity.


Guided coaching and practice can help you stretch your comfort zone and overcome insecurities. Being able to communicate with confidence will help you have a greater impact on your communication partners.


7. From linguistic to cultural competence

You already speak English, and while solid language skills are a prerequisite for communication, successful interactions go beyond language. They require cultural insights and cross-cultural skills. With the help of cross-cultural coaching/training, you can move your language skills to the next level – the level of effective communication.



Contact me to find out more about how cross-cultural coaching or training can help you, your team, your organization, and your specific situation! I look forward to hearing from you!




References:

Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of Global Business. PublicAffairs.


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