Intercultural effectiveness requires a ‘meeting of the minds’—shared ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that help us to better understand, predict, and respond to the thoughts and behaviour of others. A meeting of the minds increases the likelihood that our interactions will be harmonious and our communicative goals will be achieved. However, this is not as easy as it sounds. Certain cognitive, emotional, and behavioural barriers must be overcome for individuals from different cultural backgrounds to align their frameworks for interpreting and responding to the world.
Eleven years ago, my husband Alex and I arrived in Singapore with our two young daughters, Olivia and Imogen. I vividly remember the day we arrived—I was excited and enthusiastic, and eager to settle in and explore the island city.
Leading up to the move, I had spent considerable time browsing expatriate websites looking for an apartment for us to rent. I read that Singapore was Asia-lite: an enviable blend of East and West that made it expat friendly. Indeed, I was attracted to Singapore’s lack of pollution, low crime rate, efficient public transport system, low levels of corruption, and world-class education system, as well as English being the official business language.
Seven years earlier I had worked in London for three years, and I was looking forward to living abroad again and making many new Singaporean friends, just as I had made many British friends while living in England.
My transition to the Little Red Dot, however, was not as positive as my move to London. I couldn’t pinpoint any particular problem, but rather a series of daily frustrations dented my enthusiasm for my new home.
Buying a stamp
I remember, shortly after my arrival, I needed to send a letter to a government department. I visited my local stationery shop to stock up on envelopes and while there asked the sales assistant whether I could also purchase stamps from her. She explained that stamps were not sold through the stationery shop, but I could purchase them from the 7-eleven mini-mart downstairs.
After paying for the envelopes, I proceeded to the 7-eleven and asked at the counter for some stamps. “No, we don’t sell stamps here”, said the girl at the counter. “Really?” I asked, “They told me upstairs at the stationery shop that I could buy stamps here”. I was holding an envelope with the government letter inside in my hands. “No, we don’t sell stamps here”, she repeated.
I was feeling a bit annoyed but retraced my steps back to the stationery shop. “Excuse me, you mentioned I could buy stamps at the 7-eleven, but when I asked I was told that they don’t sell stamps”. The shop assistant replied, “Well, that’s incorrect, I am positive that 7-eleven sells stamps.”
Now confused and irritated, I returned to 7-eleven. “Excuse me, but I checked a second time at the stationery shop and they are quite certain that I can purchase stamps from you.” The same girl at the counter I had spoken to minutes earlier stared at me and replied, “We sell local stamps, but not international stamps.”
I was puzzled and frustrated—I wondered why she hadn’t mentioned that she sold local stamps the first time I had asked. I hadn’t made a distinction between local and international stamps when I enquired as to whether she sold stamps, so why had she assumed that I wanted to buy international stamps?
Similar miscommunications occurred with such regularity during my first few months in Singapore that I concluded Singaporeans were not good communicators, at least not in English.
I have since learned that the miscommunication I experienced was caused by cultural differences. As an Australian, I had been socialised to communicate in alow-context cultural environment. A low-context culture is one in which meaning is inferred from actual words used. If I had wanted to buy an international stamp, I would have expressly made the distinction.
Singapore, on the other hand, is a high-context culture. In high-context cultures, meaning is inferred from the context or setting instead of the words used. Because I was a foreigner holding an envelope and seeking to purchase a stamp, the shop assistant reasoned that I was looking to send a letter overseas and that I needed an international stamp.
Smiling at strangers
But it wasn’t only communication barriers that concerned me in those early days. I remember telling Alex that I didn’t feel welcomed in Singapore. Back home in Sydney, strangers acknowledge each other with a smile or a nod as they pass. When waiting in a queue, people engage in polite conversation with others in line. At your neighbourhood café, the barrista knows your name, asks how you are, and remembers your regular order.
But in Singapore, I could walk the entire length of Orchard Road without anyone acknowledging me, and certainly no smiles. If someone made eye-contact with me by accident, they appeared puzzled and perhaps a little startled by my smile beaming back at them. My family visited the same dim-sum restaurant nearly every Sunday for five years, yet every time we visited we had to repeat our names at the door—it was as if we had never been there before. Because I did not experience casual friendliness as I knew it back home, I concluded that Singaporeans were not very friendly.
Again, I now know that my assumptions were wrong. Whether or not you smile at a stranger is cultural. In sparsely-populated Australia, I was socialised to acknowledge the company of others. In densely-populated nations like China, however, children are socialised to reserve displays of friendliness to close friends and family members. To acknowledge every person that you encounter in your daily travels would be too time-consuming.
In Chinese contexts, smiling and talking to people you don’t know can be perceived as superficial and is viewed with suspicion. A Chinese person might think that they are being made fun of when someone is smiling at them. Smiling can make a Chinese person feel very uncomfortable. Smiling at strangers is so countercultural that volunteers for the 2008 Olympics in China were required to take classes on how to smile to ensure they portrayed China as hospitable to international visitors.
This does not imply that personal relationships are not important to the Chinese. In fact, China is more relationship-orientated than Australia. In Australia, people have many non-intimate acquaintances that change over the course of one’s life. In China, people prefer a smaller number of more intimate relationships that last a lifetime.
The majority ethnic group in Singapore is Chinese, and Singaporeans are likewise uncomfortable smiling at strangers. Similar to the Olympic campaign in China, in 2006, the government of Singapore sponsored an advertising campaign “Four Million Smiles” to encourage its four million citizens to smile more in preparation for the 61st Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank Group, and their 16,000 delegates.
My lack of understanding of the cultural differences in smiling at strangers ultimately made it harder for me to settle into life in Singapore and to make friends because I mistakenly concluded that most Singaporeans had no interest in befriending me.
Asia-lite had lured me into a false sense of cultural similarity. On the surface, Singapore looked much like home, but there remained significant differences beneath the surface. Studies show that although tangible cultural elements like dress, language, and business practices are increasingly global, relative differences between cultures, with regards to their less visible elements—like values, assumptions, and beliefs—have remained stable over many decades.
The disorientating effects of intercultural exchange
Culture shock refers to the disorientation and distress that a person experiences when they are exposed to a new cultural environment and they fail to adjust their cultural framework. Colleen Ward, Stephen Bockner, & Adrian Furnham present an ABC model of culture shock:
A stands for Affect: This concerns the emotional stages one typically experiences when they encounter a new culture. A brief, initial honeymoon stage of excitement and curiosity is followed by negative emotions like confusion, anxiety, and helplessness, as well as anger, impatience, exhaustion, and hostility. The individual might experience an intense desire to flee and withdraw socially, experiencing isolation and loneliness. Sometimes physical health is affected, and a percentage suffer significant mental illness.
B stands for Behaviour: This involves an inability to respond and act appropriately in the new environment. A lack of understanding of the norms and assumptions for social interaction, and problems with communication and in the execution of gestures and rituals, mean the individual is unable to form effective social relationships. They might even unintentionally cause offence. Poor intercultural relations contribute to a failure to achieve both social and professional goals in the novel settings.
C stands for Cognition: As individuals come into contact with beliefs and norms that conflict with their own cultural codes, perceptions of differences drive distinctions of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. Individuals become more ethnocentric—a belief in the superiority of their own culture—and form negative biases and stereotypes towards members of the novel cultural group as they judge them according to their own cultural ideals, and seek to maintain the validity of their own cultural truths.Six strategies for intercultural effectiveness
Six strategies for intercultural effectiveness
Fortunately, research has shown that individuals can improve their interactions with persons from different cultural backgrounds by bringing the following qualities to their exchanges:
Optimism—Misunderstandings, misattributions, conflict, confusion and uncertainty are common in intercultural interactions and can strain relationships. An optimistic mindset promotes harmonious intercultural exchange by starting with the belief that the other party is benevolent. It holds the belief that others do not want to frustrate, attack, deceive, to be impolite or rude, or to impose. An optimistic mindset entertains the possibility of a communicative mismatch before making assumptions of disrespect, deviance or incompetence.
Curiosity—Curiosity involves approaching intercultural exchanges with a learner rather than a judger mindset. A learner mindset is orientated towards the discovery of new information and encourages you to approach even familiar events with a beginner’s mind. Curiosity encourages reflection, empathy, connection with others and cultural learning. In contrast, a judging mindset is critical, assumptive and defensive.
Mindfulness—We habituate behaviours and mental responses that help us to fit in and succeed in our cultural setting. These become unconscious cultural scripts for responding to others. Automatisation frees up our limited mental capacity; routine responses become habits, enabling us to focus our attention on new or more complex experiences. While automatisation works well in familiar, stable settings, it is problematic in new or changing environments. When circumstances change, past behavioural and mental scripts might no longer fit. Mindfulness encourages us to reflect on how our cultural filter is influencing our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours reflexively. With mindfulness, we are better able to transcend automated cultural scripts, take the perspective of others, and manage our responses.
Flexibility—A willingness to flex your expectations as well as verbal and nonverbal behaviours when working across cultures helps you to respond to diverse others in a way that conveys respect, builds trust and rapport, and decreases the risk of miscommunication.
Humility—Our social and cultural environments shape our understanding of our world and act as filters through which we process and interpret social information and other stimuli. Our experiences define our reality and determine what is true and right for us. Any variations are deemed bizarre, wrong or inferior. People from different backgrounds often have entirely different, even contrasting, perceptions of their world. Conceptions of right and wrong, and good and bad, are relative rather than absolute. Letting go of the need to be right by accepting that there is more than one way to interpret the world helps you to overcome narrow ways of thinking. Singular, rigid worldviews are replaced with more inclusive, expansive, flexible, and integrating outlooks.
Civility—Culture is intimately tied to our self-concept. Differences in values, beliefs, and behavioural norms can trigger emotional resistance or backlash. Civility is respecting the humanity of diverse others. It does not involve endorsing their specific ideas or behaviour. Respect as civility means showing a positive regard for others as equals. Civility involves disagreeing without demonising and hearing diverse opinions without attacking.
Individuals that approach their intercultural interactions with a mindset characterised by these qualities are better able to manage the disorientating effects of cultural differences and build strong, effective working relationships with culturally diverse stakeholders.
Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.