Nearly everyone in business, government, and the non-profit sector realizes one central fact about the 21st century: it will be marked by ever-increasing globalization and the forging of new connections all over the world. In order to face this inevitable future, it’s crucial that educated professionals in all fields learn to understand one another across cultural boundaries.
“Intercultural training” refers to any of a wide variety of practices. Some training regimens are specific to a culture or an aspect of a culture, while others teach general psychological principles. Some are integrated into foreign-language classrooms, while others are undertaken as part of corporate or professional development courses.
Intercultural Training – Benefits
The most obvious benefit of intercultural training is that it enables communication where otherwise there might be confusion. When building strategic partnerships in foreign cultures, it is simply not sufficient to learn the language and customs of the host country; there are also countless intangible factors that influence the success or failure of a cross-cultural venture, and it is here that the value of intercultural training becomes obvious.
Think, for example, of the role that humor plays in building trust and intimacy in human relationships. Within a single culture, politicians and business partners frequently use jokes to strengthen their interpersonal connections. But jokes rarely translate across cultures and, in the worst cases, they can come off as offensive.
Intercultural training teaches individuals to have a proper receptive, listening attitude – precisely the attitude that enables them to quickly learn another culture’s humor, and thus enable themselves to build closer, more effective partnerships across cultures.
Reducing Culture Shock
Expatriates and frequent travelers are all familiar with the uncomfortable experience known as culture shock. Culture shock occurs when an individual is transplanted out of his or her own culture and into one that is foreign to them. Culture shock has many unpleasant symptoms, including irregular sleep and eating, irritability, alienation from friends and coworkers, and in many cases severe psychological distress (depression, anxiety, etc.). Intercultural training, undertaken either before the transition or in the early transitional phases can help immensely with culture shock.
Intercultural training not only prepares individuals for the psychological stresses of a cultural transition; it also equips them with knowledge and cultural tools that they can use to get through that transitional period as quickly and painlessly as possible. As the transition progresses, individuals become more and more comfortable in the host community. Slowly, intercultural training plus a healthy dose of informal social interaction can help the individual become “bicultural” – that is, equally at home in either their home culture or the host culture. This, of course, is a lifelong learning process, but intercultural training can accelerate it immensely, especially in the early stages.
Business, politics, and NGO work are all predicated on the principle of responding to the needs of a particular market or constituency. This means, of course, that it’s crucial for any organization to understand what those needs are. Intercultural training provides individuals with the tools they need to diagnose the community’s needs and generate ideas for solving them. Imagine, for example, that a corporation wants to sell its products in a new country or region. If the corporation lacks cultural knowledge of that region, they may find it impossible to attract customers and turn a profit.
A similar problem can occur in the non-profit sector, and so the value of intercultural training is not limited to corporations. One story, famous among scholars of global economics, tells of a well-funded European NGO that planned to distribute high-quality farming implements to rural villagers in Tanzania. What this NGO failed to realize was that farmers in different regions of Tanzania use different kinds of tools, and so in many regions the farming implements were useless to the actual farmers. On subsequent visits NGO employees discovered their gifts being used as fuel and building materials rather than for their intended purpose. If this NGO had undertaken a successful regime of intercultural training before implementing their planned distribution, they might have had greater awareness of the cultural nuances in the host country, and their program would have been more successful.
In practice, however, the distinction between cognitive, behavioral, and emotional results begins to blur, as the practical benefits of intercultural training operate at all levels simultaneously.
Intercultural Training – Results
Intercultural training programs are intended to produce three kinds of results:
- knowledge of a given culture, its customs, and its history,
- the dispelling of myths and stereotypes,
- the ability to understand unfolding events in their proper context,
- the ability to improve business or politics by understanding the needs of a particular community.
- more effective communication,
- ethical business practices based on greater awareness of other peoples’ perspectives,
- the ability to avoid cultural mistakes and offensive faux pas.
- increased openness and receptivity to others,
- greater compassion,
- increased comfort level for expatriates and foreign-exchange students.
Read more: CoExist (ESQ Training)