By Devan Moonsamy

Cross-cultural competence involves the knowledge, skills, and motivation to adapt to diverse interactions. It is a major way in which we can contribute to intercultural cooperation. Some aspects of our behaviour are critical in terms of the values of a culture. However, certain key abilities and attitudes enable us to adapt to any culture effectively.

Cross-cultural competency is among the most important skills for the future workforce, according to the Institute for the Future, a global research body based in California. Tim Rettig, author on interpersonal struggle and success, explains, ‘Research has long shown that diversity of thought increases creativity and, with it, the innovation potential of both teams and corporations.’

In future and now, organisations are compelled to work more with people and partners from faraway places. This does not mean emailing and Skyping with them. No, they are right there in the office with us on a daily basis. Sometimes we are the cultural outsider, and we need to adapt while trying not to be too sensitive to what would be inappropriate back home. We need to be able to explain our views as well, allowing others to understand our needs better.

Benign terms?

Conflict will happen in cross-cultural encounters. In itself, it may not be such a major problem, provided it leads to mutual understanding. As an example of how cross-cultural competency doesn’t happen, consider the following: An overseas client visits the workplace. They know little about SA. In chatting with a company employee, they hear that their accent is distinct, and ask, ‘Are you a Boer?’

The employee is indeed Afrikaans, but they find the term Boer offensive. Some Afrikaans people do not mind the term, but others feel that it has been used in a derogatory way. The employee becomes angry and says, ‘You can’t speak to me like that!’ The visitor is taken aback and feels insulted and confused.

In such a case where the person knows little about our complex history, and even in cases where a South African uses a term such as Boer, is it necessary to become angry and retaliate? The person may think that the term is an acknowledgement of a proud heritage, for example, as in the case of terms such as African American as used by some in the US.

Not everyone knows that the term has become offensive to some Afrikaans people because it has been used in slogans and songs such as ‘Kill the Boer’, as started in 1993 by Peter Mokaba, president of the ANC Youth League at the time. Indeed, if we are not involved in such behaviour and threats, we may not know of their existence.

Terms such as jeez, girly or my girl, monkey, umlungu and Dutchman can be offensive, depending on the circumstances in which they are used. Avoiding the use of slang and colloquial language in the workplace is thus a safe option. We also want to avoid being overly familiar with our colleagues, especially if we don’t know them well. We don’t know how some words can hurt others, even if they have no negative meaning to us.

We should thus show cultural competency by confining our conversation to terms that are neutral and commonly accepted as referring to specific objects and ideas relevant to the working environment. We should avoid ambiguous or potentially controversial topics. It is also advisable to avoid terms which we are not familiar with.

Conflict transformation can still be achieved in problem cases if employees are willing to learn, listen and reconcile. Team members need time to reflect on each other’s’ different points of view, and ultimately find a way to create synergy and a novel solution to a problem.

Ways to achieve cross-cultural competency

Tim Rettig says that problems can be curbed when team members display cross-cultural competency. He suggests a number of ways, and some are stated below.

  • Placing oneself in the position of the other person and striving to see from their perspective.
  • Understanding the different values, beliefs and assumptions of the other side.
  • Listening carefully from a neutral stance with a view to gaining a deep understanding of the person’s culture and personal beliefs.
  • Communicating one’s point of view effectively but kindly to the other side.
  • Working towards integration of the different perspectives in order to create a new solution to the problem.
  • Resolving conflicts in a productive way as opposed to allowing negative emotional reactions to overtake a situation and set a precedent for future interaction.

People behaving strangely

One final word to be said on this topic of cultural understanding comes from psychology. Sometimes people say and do strange or offensive things, and we think, ‘That’s odd,’ or ‘I never expected that from them.’ We may also become angry at them for this.

But at times people are so worried about not doing the wrong thing that they become preoccupied with it. This is often accompanied by intense fear. They keep thinking about this bad thing they shouldn’t do to the point where, especially when they are stressed or on ‘autopilot’ and simply trying to cope in a difficult time, they end up doing the exact thing they didn’t want to.

We jump to take offence, not realising that, for that moment in which they fell short, there were hundreds of other times when they did the right thing and mastered their prejudices and fears.

It is thus important to consider whether a person has shown a pattern of discriminatory behaviour towards other cultures, genders, races etc. Or have they not rather made a mistake which should be forgiven? No one can say they are perfectly unbiased and perfectly behaved. If there is a pattern of behaviour, however, combined with an unapologetic attitude, then the person certainly deserves discipline.

If we are looking at an isolated case, and the person shows genuine remorse, it can be an excellent opportunity to implement conflict transformation and teach cross-cultural competency. We thereby build more closely-knit cooperative teams who better understand one another, have increased respect for one another, and have learnt to weather storms together and come out united.