05 Apr 2017

Breaking the wall

When we (my colleague and I) walk into the room, the atmosphere is uncomfortable. Or rather it’s a ‘forced’ comfortable: being professional because you must.

A team of about 25 people are part of the workshop that two of us will be facilitating. Nothing new about it, except that this is a team that has never worked together before. It’s a team that comes from two countries. And it’s a team of people who, although being called ‘a team’, sits on different sides of a wall – the wall that culture often builds.

This is a cross culture session we are hosting in Den Hague in The Netherlands. It’s the team that is to work together for the next several months. This is the team that is going to take on immense challenges of a weighty project going forward. Right now, that challenge is mine: How do I manage to get this team together – by the end of the day?

For the Dutch, it’s pleasant June weather

It’s June. For the Dutch, it’s pleasant June weather. For the Indians, however, (and that includes me), it’s cold, wet, rainy, in effect: cold. The same temperature – different perceptions. The comfort levels between the Indians and the Dutch are exactly that – between chilly and frozen. (Did I say cold?). And although the Dutch are genuinely warm and friendly there is a group of Indians huddled in the centre of the room as we begin the day.
I am prepared – with intensive research, background work, dry runs and constructive, internal feedback. But I see the body language of the people in the room and I am now starting with clammy hands and cold feet.

This is culture…

This is the invisible wall that exists between countries, between people, between ideologies. And if we let it build, it just grows bigger and bigger and manifests itself in a real wall. (No example needed here.) And while the world is sitting up and taking pot shots at another ‘wall’ this is one wall that silently builds itself in most global organizations.
Most organizations put a ‘dream team’ from two diverse cultures together and expecting them to go after a common goal. Amounting to a tall ask. This is what makes cross cultural sensitization a vital, yet often undermined aspect of team building activities. Cross culture training aims to create awareness, fosters understanding, and encourages acceptance and acknowledgement of the differences between two cultures.

Culture is an Iceberg

It’s no surprise that Edward T. Hall has compared culture to an iceberg. What you see as behaviour or rituals on the outside is just the tip. What lies beneath is a whole system of beliefs and principles that never surface and, sometimes, are the cause of misunderstandings and misinterpretations between people of different cultures. Then you explore the dimensions of culture as propounded by Geert Hofstede. These are the dimensions for either concession or conflict. My idea is to explore all the definitions of culture, delve deep into their bases, and come up with examples of how they manifest as behaviours intrinsic to one country: mine. As an Indian, India is what I will explain. And so it begins.

Subtle shifts

As the day wears on, and we go through the session, the outlook improves. Subtle shifts take place in the atmosphere. The ‘differences’ begin to become acceptable; similarities begin to emerge. The cold blustery winds now become waves of warmth as suddenly an ‘A-HA’ moment occurs, and behaviour that was so far unfathomable miraculously makes sense. Frown lines on the forehead clear, replaced by a slight twinkle in the eye. Tentative at first and enthusiastic later, high-fiving and back slapping ensues. What seemed to be building up as a bone of contention becomes a friendly joke:  a joke that two people on either side of a wall can laugh at. It’s heartening. Now the ones that were huddled in the centre in the morning are spread across the room, basking in the warmth of the hospitality of the hosts, and looking forward to the next friendly banter with them.

There is no right or wrong in culture

By the end of the day the team (not teams, mind you) understands that there is no wrong or right. There is just a different way. There exist two points of view. Maybe three.
And sometimes the points of view come from a cultural base.
Sometimes it is just a personality trait.
You accept and acknowledge that you are different from the team mate next to you.
And yet you are the same.
You realize that you look different yet feel the same.
And you end up realizing that underneath it all, a team becomes a team because they have one common outlook, one common goal and one common process to get things done.  The rest of the world can wait. Now let’s get the work done. As one team.


Queries? Comments? Need a cross culture sensitisation workshop for a team working with India? Feel free to reach out. Email me at vaishakhi@abacusyellow.com