As more businesses expand their operations abroad transforming into multinationals, the need to work effectively in a multicultural environment has become paramount. In these changing times Andy Molinsky coined the term ‘global dexterity’, formally acknowledging the ability to work effectively in a multicultural world.
Regardless of how much you know about acceptable behaviors for different cultures, translating theory to actual practice is a whole different story. The challenge here is to effectively apply your theoretical knowledge to your behaviors whether you work in a multicultural team, are studying or living abroad. In Andy’s own words, “It’s not only the differences that most people need to understand to be effective in foreign cultural interactions: It’s global dexterity, the ability to adapt or shift behavior in light of these cultural differences.”
When we think about shifting or adapting our behaviors based on cultural differences we often undermine how difficult this shift actually is, and thus we underestimate both cultural shock and reverse cultural shock. Although most people eventually recover from it, the psychological stress associated with functioning in a different culture can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.
In a business environment the presence or absence of global dexterity could mean the difference between winning and losing. Something as simple as the way of handing over a business card could be done wrong depending on how it’s done. Integrating global dexterity into daily behaviors allows people operating in difficult cultures to perform daily tasks in acceptable manners depending on the context. Without Global Dexterity it’s likely you’ll not be able to remember all the rules and your important deal might go south because a simple gesture was culturally disrespectful. Even if you do remember all the rules it won’t come naturally, you’ll probably think twice before doing something as simple as offering a business card. This can result in people becoming overwhelmed and frustrated.
In his book Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process, Andy Molinsky offers a way of stepping out of your cultural comfort zone while avoiding the psychological distress that accompanies cultural shock.
Culture shock isn’t something that happens in an instant. In fact, in 1954 Kalervo Oberg was the first one to theorise culture shock and its four stages, namely; honeymoon, frustration, adaptation, and acceptance. Nowadays culture shock is even more well defined and researchers have expanded the ‘Stage Theory of Culture Shock’. While acceptance does eventually come, people who suffer from cultural shock often report going through an identity crisis or the loss of self.
Surprisingly so, these feelings are also experienced by people who are returning home after their time abroad. Suddenly, the streets back home are either too loud or too quiet and the commercials somehow sound like fingernails scratching a chalkboard. At your workplace all your coworkers are a lot more formal, or all of a sudden being on time is now early! Reverse culture shock can be even more depressing because now you didn’t anticipate it. This time off, you’re expected to adjust to your environment seamlessly since it’s your home after all. In his fiction book ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’ Thomas Wolfe puts his own spin on reverse culture shock and illustrates a relatable yet dramatic picture of what going back home feels like.
Long story short, culture shock takes a toll on people’s confidence, their mental health, and ultimately isn’t good for business. This is where cross-cultural training and global dexterity come in hand!
By attaining global dexterity business owners and managers can establish fruitful long-term business relationships as well as a good international reputation. With the right knowledge of cultures and an ability to apply that knowledge, businesses can achieve incredible success and respect internationally.
The author would like to thank Hafsa Shakil, GMD intern, for her support in research and writing for the present article.
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