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What is Intercultural Training?

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When I first heard of intercultural training, I was talking to my mom about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was maybe 12 years old, and I knew I didn’t want to teach or be in healthcare.  Business became the obvious choice…but what part of business? After meandering around topics, my mom mentioned cultural training. While she didn’t really know the details, she knew there were consultants and trainers that were hired to help business people navigate the challenges and nuances of doing business in different countries.

As a child that was lucky enough to travel a bit, I was always enamored with culture, and this seemed like the perfect fit. Though I ended up pursuing marketing, this memory always stuck with me. And while this may sound like a precocious conversation to have at 12, I swear it really happened.

Through a weird twist of fate, I have ended up working in the field that I talked about over a decade ago without even realizing it. Within the first few months, I quickly learned there was a whole lot more to intercultural training than my mom realized. It’s not just about how to shake hands, or how to present your business cards, but it’s about teaching self-awareness and communication.

While there is no official definition of intercultural, or cross-cultural, training, the generally agreed upon definition states it is training given to employees to examine the cultural differences between nations, to bring awareness to these differences, to help smooth business challenges, and to improve communication.

When businesses began expanding their operations internationally, it became apparent that navigating cultural nuances were important to profit. One of the seminal thinkers in the field was Geert Hofstede. He conducted extensive research while working for IBM in the late 1960s and early 1970s (https://geert-hofstede.com). Geert not only defined the field of study but developed the concept of dimensions. Dimensions are the categories of comparison between cultures that allow us to look at cultural norms on a comparative scale. Hofstede originally developed six dimensions which are the basis for the following 50+ years of cultural research. Over the decades, many studies have been conducted in countries around the world to help us understand the differences and similarities amongst us. The years of research have also yielded a great number of new findings that are still being explored today.  

Though there have been many critiques of cultural studies as researchers have developed new practices, many of the principles of the field have remained the same. Over the years, organizations such as the Society for Intercultural Education and the Intercultural Communication Institute or the research conducted by Yale University have expanded the scope and topics studied.

As our understanding of culture changes and as cultures change, it is important to adjust our training techniques for the needs of today’s employees. Today, cultural training often consists of in-person or online education and includes lessons on cultural dimensions and theory, as well as translating those theories into real life through testing or scenario-based learning. The goal of most trainings is not only to educate a person on the basic concepts of culture and the visible differences, like how to introduce yourself, but on how to spot differences in preferences that might make or break a business relationship.

While American business people might be comfortable jumping right to business during a meeting, Brazilians would think it’s very rude to start a meeting without engaging in some personal small talk. Attributing this preference as simply a social norm is somewhat true, but the reason these preferences have become the norm is based on the cultural preference for either transaction-based interactions or relationships built on friendship.

While this example may seem simple, or easy to dismiss if it happens once, what if it happens over and over? Americans may resent the time spent on non-business subjects while Brazilians may feel no personal connection to their American counterparts, creating a lack of trust. In either case, there is now an inefficiency and a lack of communication and understanding.

Some people might even think that intercultural training is only relevant for C-suite members, or people who travel or engage in high stakes business deals, but that is just not true. While training is important for those people, it’s also just as critical for those in customer service and at the desk level in any company who does business internationally. Being able to communicate with others whose culture is different from your own is a key business skill. Therefore, people in all positions from all areas around the world benefit from cultural training.

When the complexities of training needs and the nuances of culture are brought together, a wide variety of training options and styles is developed. Intercultural training is never a one-size-fits-all solution because each person and culture has its own needs. Understanding the challenges and needs of cultural training is complex, and as a 12-year-old, I never would have guessed I would need to know more than just a list of do’s and don’ts. But as an adult, I have a much greater appreciation for how intercultural training is always evolving and growing, diving under the surface to get to the heart of an issue, and looking for ways to help people interact and communicate successfully. 


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