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Multicultural haze

Still struggling to cope with the multi-cultural reality of your workplace? Well, in order to get the desired positive result in diverse business environment, it's imperative to learn and understand about the cultural values, beliefs and etiquette of your co-workers.

Traffic, calls, meetings, deadlines, boss - these are the obvious words that come to our minds when we think of our work. As if that is not enough, there is ‘the pariah' factor that comes into play a lot more in the workforce scenario especially in the Middle East.

However, it's not often that we focus on our ability or inability for that matter, to communicate cross-culturally. In today's office place this ability has to be developed over time and learnt in order to foster a happy and pleasurable office environment.

The Gulf reality
The Middle Eastern countries are no different from the rest of the world and has a mixed work culture based on its composition- the government offices largely having a local populace and private sector with an expatriate majority have different ethos. “The government organizations have a more protective, limited environment while the multi-national companies (MNCs) are trying to implement the more European/American style of work culture but tailored to suit the laws of the land,” said Cutella Dias, CEO of the Etiquette School Dubai, and a long term resident of the UAE.

Although a culturally diverse workforce has served to add more value to the workplace especially in terms of expertise and introduction of different work styles, this cultural workplace reality however makes the possibility for miscommunication and misunderstanding. Conflicts and disagreements that take root from cultural differences, projecting as individual/personality issues are some of the very negative aspects of working in this diverse work environment.

However, as the saying goes, it's not what you say but the way you say it. Subtle pauses in sentences, emphasis placed on certain words, tones and body language can say so much more than the words themselves. The art of communicating in a multi-cultural workplace can be difficult but tackled if you learn how to present your ideas when there are opposing viewpoints on the table, resolving conflicts and motivating people to work with you.

Work your way around
Communication even between two people can be problematic enough at certain times, then imagine the challenges which exist in our GCC expatriate reality. Communicating across cultures has added layers of complexity to this general difficulty of talking to co-workers. Although you share your organisation's culture with your co-workers, it's very unlikely that you'll share your personal culture with all of them. So, knowing some basic tools to dealing with cultural differences will help you get ahead, climb that corporate ladder even in this multi-cultural reality.

Effective communication is of paramount importance to ensure happy, tension-free working hours. It's for this reason that all classified advertisements today carry this fine print “on the look-out for candidates who have good communication and interpersonal skills and are team players.”

A positive/open style of communication over the negative/closed style communication. A positive communicating style is characterised by qualities such as responsiveness, respectfulness, active listening, interest, sincerity and accepting whereas a negative style is largely defensive and attacking. It's a lot of ‘I' and ‘Me' texts with lot of rationalising (finding explanation in favour for your actions) and patronising (showing little interest in others and is mostly distracted). In a negative style you always approach any feedback as a negative criticism, which might not be the case at all.

We understand the language barrier is a very tricky one. The accent difficult as it is to master is even more difficult to unlearn. This language problem often leads to hilarious, comic scenes at offices, usually wrought with a lot of movements of hands and facial expressions. But yes, these gestures and your tone of speech go a long way in communicating your message clearly. However that's not to say that it's the way to communicate but merely to point out the significance of unspoken words.  A kindly expression, a friendly smile may not totally dismantle the barrier but it sure does bridge that gap a little. (English language courses available at the British  Council and the Dubai World Trade Centre could help)

Voice your thoughts
Equally important is your tone, pitch and volume of voice.

• Power your voice – Squeaky, quivering voice is not perceived to be one of confidence.

• Speed breakers, hit those humps – People will perceive you as nervous and unsure of yourself if you talk fast. Same is the case when you mumble. So, speak slowly and clearly.

• Enjoy speaking – Avoid a monotone and use dynamics while speaking, let others have just as much pleasure listening to you as you have while speaking.

• Don't yell please – Use a volume that is appropriate for the setting. If your colleague is writing his article due in an hour, it's understandable to demand some quiet.

Cultural bias
Few of us are aware of our own cultural biases because cultural imprinting is begun at a very early age. While some of culture's knowledge, rules, beliefs, values and fears are taught explicitly, most of it is absorbed subconsciously. So very often than not we do or say things that might be perceived as being inappropriate by another.

In Europe for example business people usually leave a certain amount of distance between themselves when interacting. Touching only takes place between friends.
In the Middle East, business people are more tactile and like to get close and distance is viewed as aloofness.

A culturally diverse office is bound to throw up a lot of situations where your biases come to fore. The irritation you experience when your boisterous colleague who is used to speaking loud, even utters a monosyllable is a good indication that you're not as accommodating as you would like to think. Over coming cultural bias which is deeply ingrained into our minds can be very tough but that is not impossible either. A very perceptive mind, awareness that your actions and thoughts could be construed in a different way than intended, taking responsibilities for your actions could be the start. A conscious effort to accommodate your colleague and his ways and a neutrality of nature with less volatility will go a long way in helping to foster good relationship with the pariahs.

Courtesies should never be forgotten even in liberal and modern offices where ‘hi' and ‘bye's are the norms. “In the Middle East most people still adhere to a largely Asian culture in which elders are treated very respectfully,” said Dias. It's possible an elderly colleague prefers not to be greeted with ‘hi-fis' by the twenty something colleague. Such communication problems arising out of generation gap can be avoided if you don't forget your courtesies and learn to read the cues correctly.

It's always nice to wait if your boss or colleague is on the phone or saying excuse me before walking into the boardroom or presentation area. Never interrupt without a reason and most importantly never forget those ‘thank you', ‘excuse me'. Well it really doesn't matter how you say it, ‘knock knock', ‘shall I come in', ‘hey' but do warn them. It would be just as embarrassing for you as it is for them to find others in compromising situations. Don't try to peak into your colleague's personal belongings. Candour is cool, but prying is not.

Comfort zone
Identifying your comfort zone may make things a lot more fun for you but it can be dangerous when you decide to get too comfy just there. This is more important in the Middle Eastern context and its Islamic bearing. Don't violate your liberty by being obnoxious, be it your dressing or your language use (you can do the swearing in the loo, don't assume that your companions don't mind), whatever be the circumstances always respect the said and unsaid laws of the land.

Interacting with just a niche group or even limiting your work to just ‘the said' can become a problem. Its okay to help the office boy by keeping your table clean or giving an honest well meaning opinion to your colleague who might be in for some troubles. Take that extra step and help even those who don't belong in that comfort zone.

A good recipe for productivity, job satisfaction or morale building according to Dias is more group activities, team outings and dinners as a way of molding healthy office environment. She further emphasised the point saying “the feelings of belonging, as being a part of a family needs to be instilled among the staff.” This of course is for administration and HR staffs to bring about the change.

 And so the key factors to a happier working environment, as we identify them are the four C's, communication-effective communication, cultural bias, courtesy and comfort zones. Working towards workplace bliss begins with self. With simple changes in your attitudes, understanding and perception and setting aside your biases would make coping seem a lot easier and the pariahs are going to be nothing less than a family. Even if you don't share your personal culture you should at least be able to respect each others culture.

In today's workplace with technology at your disposal for all quick communications, the written word in an email or a sms should be thought out properly.

Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:
• The medium should not be misused. It can be annoying if that window keeps popping up or your cell phone keeps vibrating when you're in the midst of something important.

• It's wise to text if you're going to be late for a meeting. Watch your sentence structure and choice of language.

• The more serious issues are better dealt in person.

Here are a few tips to for the maintaining office decorum- the do's and don'ts of it:

• Use vibrating alarms on your phone

• Watch your volume when talking to co-workers

• Control your emotions

• Take responsibility

• Be helpful

• Bad mouth company

• Bring your personal life to work

• Take a extra long breaks

• Be chronic complainer

Courtesy: Arabian Man
Posted: 25/06/2008

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