Working Internationally: A Crash Course in Cultural Fluency

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Working Internationally: A Crash Course in Cultural Fluency

As a tangential result of the outcry over President Trump’s Muslim Ban, we were reminded of the extent to which globalization influences and impacts the American workforce. In the wake of the ban, large companies publicly voiced their support for the thousands of immigrant employees that they employ. Subsequently, it has served as a reminder that working in the United States increasingly means working alongside people of diverse cultural backgrounds, a long-valued part of what makes America special.

As office spaces and business operations continue to be shaped by globalization, employers are becoming privy to the value of having staff that are “culturally fluent.” Employees who have experience in international environments are being identified as top performers by businesses and acknowledged for their positive influence on interpersonal relationships in the office. This trend only stands to grow.  Luckily for millennials, they are better positioned than any generation before them to get international experience and develop their cultural fluency.

Getting the Most of Multiculturalism

One of the beautiful aspects of America is that you can shake hands with the world in your own backyard. People from all over the globe, to the tune of 23.8 million between 2010 and 2013, come to the US for a myriad of reasons, including for high-skill jobs in industries such as technology, medicine or education. And they don’t just come for jobs, they create them.

A recent post on Linkedin about the value of immigrants in the US cites statistics such as half of the deans at Harvard are immigrants, “51% of billion dollar startups had at least one foreign born founder,” and the majority of graduate students in disciplines such as electrical engineering, computer science, and mechanical engineering are immigrant students.

The post also shares the graphic below, showing that some of our largest companies are founded by 1st and 2nd generation immigrants to the United States. The immigrant founders at these eight companies alone have created hundreds of thousands of US based jobs.

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All of this diversity in professional settings presents a unique challenge for American companies.  As it has always been for America as a whole, companies must successfully navigate their cultural diversity in order to reap the benefits of a multicultural society. This has increased CEO and hiring manager’s awareness of the value that staff with international experience bring to the table in their ability to adjust, navigate, and operate amongst people of diverse backgrounds and cultures.

Value of Cultural Fluency in a Global Market

The extent to which employers are aware of the need for staff with international experience, and the value of those who have that experience, is on the rise. Writing in the Canadian magazine PolicyOptions, authors Bessma Momani and Julian Stark write:

“Business leaders, universities and governments are all seeking the knowledge and savvy that comes with international experience, an elusive set of characteristics sometimes described as cultural fluency. Businesses want their workforce to be able to communicate, connect, negotiate and understand others in the global marketplace.  Governments know that almost every issue — from health, to climate change, to innovation — has an international dimension.”

This should be fairly obvious. With companies expanding their reach globally through outsourcing, entering new markets, acquiring businesses in local markets and hiring international staff, it is crucial for their staff to have the skills necessary to understand and negotiate other cultures. The fact that these skills are considered “elusive” only adds to their demand.

Besides the practical benefits of cultural fluency, there are other reasons why employers are beginning to value employees with international experience. As Momani and Stark explain, companies find that staff with international experience “enhanced their firm’s competitiveness” and that “their top performing employees were most often those with an international perspective.” As far as valuing a specific skill set goes, this is certainly a ringing endorsement of cultural fluency.  

Cultural Fluency and Interpersonal Office Relationships

Of course, bringing together diverse groups of people from different backgrounds to work together towards a common goal will always include an increased level of complexity, especially as it pertains to interpersonal relationships in the office.

Personally, as someone who works in a Vietnamese office with Vietnamese colleagues, I am navigating cultural differences everyday. Whether it is the amount of emphasis placed on hierarchy or job titles (and the associated responsibilities), the value placed on time (in the US time is a scarce resource. In Vietnam, it is treated as one that is abundant) or the emphasis on family and relationships (in Vietnam, family comes before anything else. In the United States, I am not sure we can say the same). These are distinct differences that must be understood in order to get along with colleagues personally and succeed together in the workplace.

If I ever return to work in the US, I will bring back with me an understanding of how these cultural differences manifest themselves in professional settings and better understand the source of people’s actions, actions I may have otherwise written off as “rude” or “weird.” Thanks to the challenging but rewarding experience of working within a foreign culture, I have started to build the highly valued skill set of cultural fluency that will continue to serve me long into my career.

Where Does One Gain Cultural Fluency?

While taking courses or participating in training sessions on cultural sensitivity are beneficial, to develop cultural fluency, there is no replacement for the experience of full immersion through international work. The pressures and expectations of a job force you to confront, learn and adjust to new ways of thinking and intricacies of another culture on a daily basis.  

As with anything, learning is in the struggle. The struggle to understand one another, the struggle to compromise, and the struggle to ultimately bridge cultural gaps to meet shared goals. And that is what makes international work experience so valuable.

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Aaron Horwath

About Aaron

Aaron Horwath is a Project Integration Manager at an international technology company currently working in Da Nang, Vietnam. Originally from Portland, Oregon, he has spent the last two years working internationally. Through his site 12hourdifference.co, he is sharing his insights as well as the insights of other professional expats from around the world with millennials who are curious about taking an international career path. You can follow him on Twitter @12hrdifference and find him on Linkedin.

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