Open you eyes = Integral Intercultural Impediments

The above term came about when I was pondering my presentation for the Esimies&Henkilöstö (Supervisor&Staff) 2016 conference. The subject was the importance of cultural training for the success of a multicultural work community.

A multicultural work community is undoubtedly a significant success factor for organizations. These organizations often need guidance, tutoring, or coaching – whatever term you prefer – to bring the diverse staff together as a coherent unit. Understanding cultural differences and integrating constructive processes are key factors in intercultural training.

The benefits of cultural training to both the employer and employee are clear. Blatant mistakes in important interactions, such as managing client- or subordinate relations, team formation, or trust building can be averted when people know how to act. Also personal welfare, development and learning are important. Success in diverse environments outside one’s own comfort zones is integral for motivation and engagement.

So what are the subjects that intercultural training tackles? Culture changes quite slowly, so it should not be surprising, that familiar themes are still discussed. The headline, “4 Is” (“eyes”, get it?) was borne when I picked the four most important points from my presentation. And those four “Is” – Integral Intercultural ImpedIments – what are they?

First eye = Hierarchy

Finland, like all Nordic countries, has a low hierarchy. How is this experienced by an Indian employee moving to Finland? Let me tell you an example: my Indian client Rajesh works at the Indian subsidiary of a major Finnish company, and has been in Finland several times for assignment. When he arrived in Finland for the first time, his manager introduced him to the team briefly, gave him a computer and a phone, and explained the primary tasks and the team’s goals. After that he was left to fend by himself. Rajesh was used to having his manager often ask about how his work was progressing and ensure that the employees are doing their tasks. This everyday supervision was missing in Finland, which caused him great feelings of insecurity and ineptitude. Nobody had told him that in Finland employees value independence in working and that the role of managers is to act as a sparring partner rather than a supervisor breathing down your neck.

Second eye = Communication

We have many unique features in Finland, one of which is communication. Silence is a positive thing for us and an effective method of communication, to many others it is an aberration. Silence makes Americans squirm and many others to think of their Finnish counterparts as “slow”. When one party talks nonstop, the only way to enter the conversation may be to interrupt the other person, something that is considered very rude in Finland. Here we are raised to think that interrupting is impolite. DON’T INTERRUPT – Who among us who has raised children recognizes having said these words. Show of hands! Also, we do not often open up about our private lives – at least not at first. Rajest, the Indian assignee, told me that once he gets a new coworker in India, within one week he will know everything about them including family members, extended family and friends. Each of us can think how does the meeting of these two extremes feel and how should these situations be handled.

Third eye = Concept of time

According to the Finnish monochromic concept of time, “time is money”. To us, time is almost sacred. Meetings start on time and last for the scheduled amount of time. The time of others is valued and wasting it by being late is frowned upon. A successful outcome is dependent on staying on schedule.

Polychronic cultures on the other hand may concentrate on doing multiple things at once, and delays are acceptable. Especially if the delay is caused by another person or persons.

“That’s basic” many of you may think. None the less a highly recommended subject to go through during the introduction.

Fourth eye = Please and thank you

This is in my opinion the most central impediment to Finns dealing successfully with other cultures. Although we may speak fluent English, our language may sound very direct and impolite to a native speaker. Our language is missing the word PLEASE, so it does not come naturally without practice. Emails in particular too often go straight to the point without a thank you for the message or well wishes at the beginning and the end. Examples of this are as numerous as the stars.

Spread around the magic words PLEASE and THANK YOU. A lot. And see what happens.

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