In the globalized business world, we talk a lot about cross-cultural competence. We know it is something that everyone needs if they want to succeed in international business but figuring out exactly what it is and exactly how to get it is easier said than done.
If you ask people what cross-cultural competence means to them, you will get a lot of different answers. Some people will say cross-cultural competence is about knowing the local customs; for example, what to wear, how to give someone your business card, or whether you should shake hands or bow during the first meeting with someone. Some people will say cross-cultural competence is more about knowing the local language; being able to communicate with people in their language and understanding both the appropriate vocabulary and proper grammar.
These things and more are a part of cross-cultural competence, but not the most fundamental part. Knowing a lot about the culture or language of one place will make you very well-prepared to do business there, but that might not mean that you are really cross-culturally competent. If you must do business in a new place you don’t know very much about, your specialist knowledge of another country or culture won’t help you, but cross-cultural competence will.
So, what is the most fundamental element of cross-cultural competence? Simply put, cross-cultural competence is the ability to see your own culture as just one of many; to see it as just one possibility rather than the default or the ‘right’ way.
We can understand another culture by knowing about all the ‘strange’ customs they follow. But we are only cross-culturally competent when we understand that the customs of another culture are no stranger than the ones in our culture that seem normal to us.
It is not easy to step outside of your own culture and look at it objectively, but this is the most important part of true cross-cultural competence. The next time you encounter a strange custom from another culture, try to think about how strange your customs must seem to them!
Of course, if this all seems a little too difficult to start out with, learning a foreign language or attending cross-cultural workshops can be a great way to begin improving your cross-cultural competence!