In today’s globalized world businesses continue expanding across borders and serving global audiences in order to sustain growth. Along with advancing technology, people are not only physically traveling to and from different countries; entire business teams work together from anywhere in the world – virtual teams can be made up of members from countries diverse both geographically and culturally.
Though technology advancement has helped us achieve the possibility of communicating with each other, technology cannot fix the challenges we face when we interact with people from different cultural backgrounds. To hone our cross-cultural communication we have to learn to let go of some of our preconceived notions and judgments, and open our minds, so that we can truly hear, understand and connect with people who have different mental models, assumptions and behavioral expectations.
Anyone who has traveled or had exposure to another culture, knows that cultures function differently and if you are not sensitive to these differences, misunderstandings can easily arise. An example of a common cultural difference business teams may have to navigate is the perception of time.
If a meeting is set up for 2 pm, a person from Argentina might understand it as a meeting time ranging from 2:00-2:30 pm while someone from Germany might interpret it as 2 pm sharp. If one does not understand the cultural difference or is not open to the fact that there is a difference in interpretation, then conflicts may easily arise.
Last year I had the pleasure of examining how an improvisational framework and practice can increase one’s cross-cultural communication competency. My goal was to understand specifically how an open mindset, and an intentional practice of key behaviors can help both Chinese and American professionals connect and communicate more effectively.
What may be appropriate in a U.S. company, such as employees calling their CEO on a first name basis, might be deemed disrespectful in many Chinese companies. Another example could be the group dynamics when Americans debate their opinions openly and forcefully to make a decision, while Chinese counterparts might be more comfortable with letting the boss in the room make the decision. There is no one right way to run a business, but without a common cultural language, it becomes hard to communicate without misunderstandings.
That’s where the improv framework Brave New Workshop has created can truly shine. Here are three ways improvisational practices can help you can increase your ability to collaborate cross-culturally.
Be intentional about setting the stage for the collaboration and build a shared space.
Though we may all come from different backgrounds and speak different cultural languages, if a group decides to buy into a shared way of interaction and sets norms founded on curiosity and respect, it can suddenly turn cultural differences from potential obstacles turn into enriching, interesting, valuable additions for collaboration.
As an international student myself, I was at first hesitant about participating in improvisational exercises, because I was worried that I wouldn’t have the American (and more specifically Minnesotan) cultural cues and humor background to follow along. I was pleasantly surprised to learn how wrong I was! Improvisation was an opportunity for everyone in the group to create something together on the foundation of all the ideas and contributions of the team.
Defer judgment on others and on yourself.
Usually, when it comes to interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds, it is easy to jump to conclusions or misinterpret cues and circumstances. Instead of getting into uncomfortable confrontations, improv helps everyone loosen up by helping them practice deferring judgment. No matter where people are from, improv is a universal language that everyone can understand, because one only needs to know the improv exercise rules to participate. Improv forces us to drop our preconceived judgments and makes us adapt to whatever circumstance arise.
During the many improv exercises I experienced, I found myself opening up and not worrying about cultural norms, and instead, felt comfortable speaking my mind and responding to my colleagues. Improvising helped me let go of my worries of not fitting in, and became better at paying attention and actively listening to what my group members were saying.
Create a status-less environment where everyone wins.
There are no winners or losers in improv – only collaboration and laughter. And since improv is inherently an unpredictable practice, it is impossible to jump to conclusions about each other. Through my research, I found out that though there are vast differences between various cultures, better listening skills and open-mindedness developed through improv training can transform how people from different backgrounds, work together.
Improvisation is a universal language. Whether we are aware of it or not, improvising, or reacting and creating in the moment to meet an objective, is a familiar concept to all human beings.
While the artform itself may sound strange or perhaps petrifying to some, the underlying concepts, the mindset and behaviors it teaches are universally useful, applicable and fundamental to our ability to thrive in an ever-accelerating, unpredictable global environment.
Lydia Chu is a graduating senior at Carleton College. She grew up in South Africa and Taiwan and came to the U.S. to study Sociology and Anthropology. Lydia spent a summer interning at the BNW, where she contributed her global savvy and mighty brain to research, strategy and communication projects.