Cultural Awareness and Careers

In my average day I deal with people from five different countries, individuals in four different time zones, and have work shared between three different countries.  These numbers add up to make me one very busy person walking what feels like an infinite amount of very fine lines.

Whatever your work is, especially if you're a progeek, odds are you are going to have to deal with people from many different countries and cultures.  We are in a global economy (in case you haven't heard), the world is a much smaller place thanks to communications technologies, and with this economy, everyone wants a piece of the economic pie.

On top of all of that if you're in any kind of large city or development zone, like the greater Toronto area, the Baltimore-DC corridor, or Silicon Valley, then you almost certainly will work with people from all over the world.  You may not be aware of it or think about it, but take a moment and ask yourselves about the backgrounds of your co-workers and clients.

What this means is that you'd better get culturally aware.

You're going to be working with people around the world – or you already do.  Your customers will come from all over – or already are.  Your competitors could come from anywhere – and probably do.  You can understand technology or economics all you want, but you're not going to be nearly as effective, competitive, or happy, if you don't get people and their cultures.

You're going to need to know what holidays people take and what they mean.  It helps you understand why people are out, how to greet them properly, and helps you develop fellow-feeling.

You're going to need to understand how different cultures handle stress, conflict, communication, success, and so on.  Otherwise you will severely misread people's actions, making conflict worse or turning success into tension.

You're going to need to understand certain traditions and activities.  This lets you understand people and avoids you looking like an uneducated oaf.

You're going to need to understand people because then, seeing your effort, they're more inclined to understand you as well (and forgive anything egregiously stupid you may do).

You want to make an effort to understand people to overcome your own assumptions – good or bad.  Many times have I talked to an anime or video game fan about Japan and cringed when they got cultural information dreadfully wrong.

If you want to be a successful professional these days, cultural understanding is unavoidable because all our careers deal with people – and we're more likely to be dealing with people from all over the world.

Besides, it's just polite. Politeness is a valuable commodity.

I remember many years ago when someone who was marginally my boss and I discussed some of the religious figurines people kept on their desks (we need all the help we can get in IT).  He was pleasantly surprised to find myself aware of different cultures, including his own.  Five minutes of talk built more trust between us than a month of work together.

Go on.  The world is waiting.

– Steven Savage