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10 Ways to Learn More about Other Cultures

A group of people raising their hands in a classroom.
Here are some ways to become better informed.

1. Ask the Employee

Sometimes the best way to find out about another culture’s norms is to ask employees from that culture to teach you about it. You’ll get a better response if you make your request a real search for information, not an accusation. Also, choose someone who has some degree of acculturation and ask specific questions, such as the following:

  • What are the biggest differences between Philippine and U.S. American cultures?
  • What are some of the most difficult adjustments you have made in living here?
  • What do you wish your co-workers understood about your culture?
  • What does it mean in your culture when a person...?

2. Ask Colleagues from Other Cultures
If you don’t get enough information from your employees, ask fellow managers who are from the cultures you are trying to learn about. These colleagues can be invaluable cultural informants who can teach you about subtle but often powerful cultural norms that may be causing misunderstandings. From their management perspective, they’re apt to be able to see things biculturally and so give you some interesting insights into the areas of friction you may be trying to resolve.

3. Tap Community Resources
Another rich source of information about cultures are community organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League that have been dealing with these differences for a long time. Ethnic associations (e.g., the Korean Business Association) and social service, and refugee resettlement agencies, are good sources of information about the cultures they represent or serve. They may provide publications with concrete answers to your questions, as well as speakers. In addition, school districts—both through their English as a Second Language (ESL) departments and their staff development units—have long been teaching about multiculturalism. A call to your local school district headquarters could give you some of the information you are looking for. Finally, community relations groups make it their business to help various segments of society understand one another.

4. Read About Different Cultures
Reading nonfiction books, such as Communicating with the Mexicans or Considering Filipinos, is one way to get information directly. Another is to read nonfiction books such as Three Cups of Tea or fiction such as The Namesake or The Kite Runner that teach about other cultures.

5. Observe Without Judgment
Pay attention to how people behave without judging the behavior (e.g., avoid thinking “Oh, that’s poor taste,’“ ‘“It’s low class,” or “How ignorant”). One of the most enlightening learning experiences in our doctoral program was an assignment to observe parent‑child interactions in two cultures—U.S. American and Mexican. Watching parents and their children communicate in Los Angeles, California, and Tecate, Mexico, was an instructive way to see culture in action. Among the many differences, one stood out: U.S.-American parents were much more verbal, giving directions by telling their children what they wanted them to do. Mexican parents, on the other hand, were less verbal and more physical, walking over, taking the child’s hand, and leading him or her. This kind of detached observation may help you understand your workgroup.

6. Share in Staff Meetings What You Have Learned
Talk about cultural differences at staff meetings and at management meetings. Share insights about cultural norms and how to deal with them. Dr. Jorge Cherbosque suggests that you can even form a peer support group with a multicultural configuration. You can then serve as resources to one another, giving and getting consultation and advice.

7. Conduct Focus Groups
If you still want to find out more, you might want to organize some culture-specific focus groups to get information through group discussions. Questions such as those mentioned in tip 1 above might be used.

8. Use Employee or Customer Survey Information
Pick up the clues from what people tell you or complain about. If they make comments that people always seem in a hurry or that they feel rushed, they may be talking about differences in time consciousness. If they complain about the performance review process, they may be surfacing issues related to loss of face. If they feel the boss doesn’t take an interest in them, they may be reacting to an emphasis on task at the expense of relationship.

9. Experiment with New Methods
When we interview managers who are dealing effectively with their diverse staffs and ask how they learned what to do, they invariably say, “Trial and error.” If you are experiencing a culture‑related block, try a new behavior or a different approach, then watch to see how it works.

10. Spend Time in Other Cultures
Immersion in other cultures is a less traditional but very effective way to learn about different norms. This doesn’t mean you need to take a leave of absence and live in Mexico, the Israel, or Korea, though that experience would undoubtedly be enlightening for anyone. You can immerse yourself by watching foreign films, tuning in to the Spanish‑language channels on TV, reading literature from and about another culture, and spending time in ethnic communities such as Little India, Chinatown, or Koreatown, for example.

From Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe, Managing Diversity: A Complete Desk Reference and Planning Guide, third edition (SHRM, 2010).


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