Two Intercultural New Year’s Resolutions for 2017

Declan Mulkeen

3 Jan 2017

The New Year is traditionally a time of making resolutions, adopting new (and hopefully good) habits and banishing the old.  Many people are hoping that 2017 will see an improvement in their life, health and fortunes.

We all now work interculturally – the “monocultural workplace” is a thing of the past, and we know that working with other cultures is not the same as working exclusively with people from your own culture.  So here are two New Year’s resolutions to improve your international competency in 2017.

Two Intercultural New Year’s Resolutions

1. Re-evaluate your Attitude to Work

There are many cultures that work according to the rule, “the devil makes work for idle hands.”  Your effectiveness at work is defined largely by the volume of your output, by how busy you are, and by how little time you waste.

Time management, prioritisation and hardworking are essential qualities, which are valued by organisations.   In a traditional Japanese organisation, you should aim to arrive before the senior management, and not leave until your boss has gone home.  One survey claimed that less than 30% of American office workers take their full holiday allowance – partly due to a fear of being seen to be not seen.

This, however, is not the case around the world.  According to research done at Columbia University and Harvard Business School, Italians view the ability to take time off as a sign of status.

In Russia, being able to manage your own time so that you are not in a rush means that you have the authority to make others rush on your behalf – lack of busyness is a sign of success.  In the Middle East, not only will being busy exhaust you in the heat, it will prevent you from taking the time to develop the relationships that make business happen.

One of the biggest challenges for everyone in business, from small business owners, to executives in multi-billion-dollar companies, is getting the work-life balance right.  Cyril Parkinson, a journalist with The Economist in the 1950s, observed that work expands to fit the time allotted to it.

This leads to our first intercultural resolution for 2017: ensure you understand the cultural value of busyness.  It may be that you have to allocate less time to each task in order to appear less busy – and the health benefits of more downtime have been well researched – and to get more done.

2. First Impressions

Research carried out at Princeton University in 2006 suggests that we make our first impression in less than 0.1 seconds.  Generally speaking, our first impression is difficult to change.  Moreover, this first impression is made based on our understanding of the world: our cultural values dictate how we interpret another person’s interactions with us.  As this happens in such a short time, we do not question this judgement, and our ongoing relationship with that person is defined in one-tenth of a second.

A UK talent director was recruiting a head of a business unit in Ghana, with instructions to appoint a local Ghanaian if at all possible.  Using her cultural lens, she rejected candidate after candidate as lacking credibility and presence.  This changed the day she found out that in Ghana, making eye contact with a person in authority is seen as aggressive and rude – her candidates were showing her respect.  Seen through her UK cultural lens, avoiding eye contact shows a lack of trustworthiness or is even seen as being evasive, she did not notice that her first impression was based on false data.

So the second cultural New Year’s resolution is to trust your second, more informed, impression rather than your first one.  By taking the time to activate cultural knowledge and take a judgement based on full information, we have a much better chance of getting decisions right.

Becoming Interculturally Fluent

Less than 25% of people manage to keep to their New Year’s resolutions for more than one week.  Changing behaviour and habits takes constant focus and attention to avoid backsliding, usually because the gains are too long-term.  These intercultural new year’s resolutions should be much easier to maintain – they offer immediate returns in developing a more international approach to your business relationships.