Updated: Apr 29
The world we live in, is slowly drawing closer. Barriers are being torn down. Trade and Commerce have gained momentum in all sectors of business. With all these diversities and gaps being bridged, Cultural Sensitivity or Cultural Intelligence is now ‘hot topic’. We are on our way to becoming a ‘border-less economy’.
One would agree, there is a lot of diversity in the world we live in. Every country is coloured with a vibrant culture of its own. As times change and we become more connected, globally, the need of being raised and educated to respect cultural differences is seen. Why has this need arisen? Well, the answer is simple. Because the World is slowly turning into one Global Village. Because it is time we become aware. Time to understand various cultures around the globe. That as culturally sensitive people, we are able to handle any awkward cultural interactions and change them into rewarding and mutually enjoyable ones.
Our attitudes, traditions, beliefs and values are a combination of who we are and when these values are shared by a social group, it forms our culture. Culture influences how we think, what we do and how we perceive things around us. Culture is learned and is influenced by the people, environment and situations around us, how we deal with it and the interactions we have over time. There seems a lot of comfort in working with people of the same culture, but there are measurable benefits of working in a multi-cultural environment. There are fresh ideas, unique concepts and different working styles that we get to learn and can successfully adapt. If we find a way to work in sync with multi-cultural groups, businesses can achieve tremendous success and scale new heights.
Two aspects to keep in mind while understanding cultural sensitivity – Empathy and Objectivity. Having empathy for other cultures implies that you are able to recognize and accept differences that manifest in social interactions. Being objective means you don’t hold preconceived notions about other cultures, understand and respect their values and beliefs. This allows you to recognize similarities and differences and bridge the gap while forming a relationship of trust. In short, Cultural sensitivity simply means that you’re willing to gain a deeper understanding of other culture’s behavioral protocols, seek understanding, and demonstrate respect and empathy rather than simply judging them.
Why is Cultural Sensitivity Important? Some reasons
To demonstrate respect and appreciation for the culture of the place you are visiting for business deals or project work
In a negotiation process, it is important to understand that background, experiences, and values differ to a great extent from your own. This knowledge helps you negotiate with deeper understanding and empathy, rather than being judgmental, which will be highly appreciated
Cultural sensitivity is a key tool for defining business branding strategies
How important is it to be culturally sensitive. Let’s take for example, a place like Dubai, also known as the melting pot of various cultures. In the 1980’s, Dubai opened its doors wide to global businesses. The world has seen the fast-paced development Dubai has had, over the years. Free trading zones, real estate development and tourism is what has made Dubai a business and tourism hub. Dubai is one of the seven Emirates; however Dubai’s local population makes up only about 10-15% of the city’s population. The rest are expatriates from across the globe. Men and women originating from close to 195 countries have moved base to Dubai over the past 20 years to make it their home. They have also brought with them, their cultures and traditions including their business acumen. When such a synergy takes place in any country, it becomes imperative for both the locals and the expatriates to understand, respect and manage each other’s cultural differences.
The Bennett scale, developed by Dr. Milton Bennett, describes the different ways in which people react to cultural differences. It is also called the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS).
Six stages of development on how people conceptualize and accept cultural differences:
Denial: In this stage, there is absolutely no interest in acknowledging cultural differences. There is no curiosity, there is lack of interest and involvement with another culture.
Defense: The person is quite defensive and is averse to accepting cultural differences and believes what he follows is the best. There is no scope and recognition of the differences.
Minimization: People at this stage think of some similarities between cultures, not as a strength but because they think they might miss out on some important aspects of the larger picture.
Acceptance: At this stage, people are quite flexible, but are not really keen on bridging the differences. They will not take the first step.
Adaptation: Here people are genuinely willing to bridge differences, seeking solutions to overcome differences.
Integration: People are highly involved and readily accept the prevailing cultural differences. They arrive at a shared space where all differences can be adapted or adjusted.
To gain a better understanding of cultural sensitivity, here are few examples of cross-culture business etiquette followed across the globe:
When you are introduced to a business professional in the U.S., you shake hands. But in Middle-east, China and Japan you hug or bow, to show that you respect the person with whom you deal
In the U.S. where time is money, business deals are closed overnight. In countries like Dubai, China, Russia and India, business contracts are based on trust that may take weeks to establish. Never rush to get a contract signed. Understand that hospitality is the first step in building and retaining a long lasting relationship
Whiskey is admired in China and Japan. But in the Islamic countries like Middle East, alcohol is strictly prohibited and considered as taboo
In the Middle East and Asia, gifts must always be given at the end of the meeting otherwise, they are regarded as bribes. In Latin America, however, gifts are a great deal cracker and are supposed to be given at the start of a meeting.
Interesting isn’t it. There are so many such differences that Cultural Sensitivity has become a subject that many organisations have included in their development strategies. An organization needs to develop processes to create a global workplace, where similarities become strength and differences can be bridged, creating acceptance all the cultures existing in the world.
To create this global culture synergy, organizations have to provide structure and cultural sensitivity training in order to make employees cultural aware. Organizations now conduct culture sensitivity training during the employee on-boarding process and also educate existing employees about the benefits of being culturally aware.
Is gaining knowledge about other cultures optional? No. It is necessary and is slowly becoming a culture on its own.