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Culture Awareness and Global Dexterity


According to culture awareness expert Andy Molinsky, 'global dexterity' is key to successful cross-cultural understanding.

Awareness of culture and cross cultural differences are increasingly important in our global economy; Molinsky explains more in an interview with Forbes.

In the Forbes interview with Dan Schawbel, Associate Professor at Brandeis Uiniversity’s International Business School, Andy Molinsky expressed his views on cross-cultural understanding and communication.

Recenty, Molinsky published a book called Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behaviour Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process. He has also developed an MBA course about culture awareness and cross-cultural adaptation and his work has been mentioned many a time in The Financial Times, The Boston Globe and other prestigious media outlets. No wonder he can teach us a thing or two about intercultural communication!

Global Dexterity in Business

Firstly, Molinsky is asked about ‘global dexterity.’ What is it and why is it of importance to players in the global market?

According to Molinsky, global dexterity can be defined as ‘the ability to adapt behaviour across cultures without losing who you are in the process.’

He believes everyone who has spent some time working or living abroad has encountered situations where their standard behaviour was regarded as strange or even inappropriate. Molinsky even describes global dexterity as ‘fitting in without giving in’ and says that if you are able to adapt your behaviour to this new setting, but still act authentic, you have successfully applied the concept.

Molinsky believes global dexterity to be important because business is getting more global by the minute – and to operate in a global economy, it is crucial that people can effortlessly move across cultures, i.e display culture awareness.

This effortlessness should be visible in simple actions as for example etiquette, but also in core professional tasks such as giving and receiving feedback, motivating others etc. ‘These are situations that make or break your ability to be an effective global manager and leader.’

When asked if he has any advice for a millennial worker in Spain, Molinsky suggests the employee practices his napping skills. A joke of course – what he would like to advise people relocating to Spain is equal to his adivice to people moving to Japan or Argentina: ‘really learn your cultural setting. I don’t just mean reading a book or two about the ‘national’ culture, but to work hard to really understand the local culture.’

This means expats should bury themselves in the culture of the region. However, they mustn’t overlook company culture, as this culture differs from company to company. The culture in a company that employs many locals will not be the same as the culture in a company in which the employees are all from abroad.

Cultural Differences in Business

Interviewer Dan Schawbel then asks Molinsky about the top cultural differences he had come across.

Schawbel gives the example of Japan, where business cards have to be presented in a specific way. Molinsky admits many Westerners still don’t know how to perform this ritual properly. He is stunned by this, as he thinks the ritual is an ‘easy’ cultural difference than can be learned in a snap.

Cultural differences that ‘require you to act in a way that directly conflicts with what’s intuitive for you’ are much more difficult, Molinsky says. He gives the example of a Korean employee working in the USA that is forced to give constructive feedback to his manager. He will probably feel very awkward doing so, as this is something he would never dare to do in South Korea.

If you don’t know the language of the target culture and you don’t fit in, Molinsky believes you should regard the cross-cultural communication as acting. This involves three steps:

Step 1: you learn your lines: the behaviour that is expected from you in the target culture.
Step 2: is the rehearsal, in which you try out the behaviour and find out if it a) is effective and b) comfortable for you to perform. If the latter one is not the case, you might be able to adapt it slightly. Molinsky believes a cultural mentor can be of great help with this.
Step 3: is the dress rehearsal: you practice your behaviour in realistic situations that are similar to the ‘target’ situation.

Molinsky agrees that is seems paradoxal to regard your behaviour in another culture as acting, as this seems to contradict the authenic feel your behaviour must possess. 

However, ‘ask any actor and they’ll tell you that to be effective on stage, you need to own your role.  You need to find a way to modify and personalize the role you’re playing in order to be effective and authentic – and the same goes for crossing cultures.’

All employees must have cultural knowledge, Molinsky says. Moreover, knowledge is not enough: ‘It’s the ability to take what you know and put it into action.’ He again refers to the Korean employee working in America. The employee can learn about the behaviour that is expected from him, but putting this knowledge into action is a whole different matter. If you have been taught to respect authority, you will have a hard time with criticising your superior.

To be able to do this, Molinsky says, global dexterity is key.

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Photo by Ernesto Velázquez on Unsplash

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