Am I Culturally Adaptable?

September 2010, by So-Young Kang

We have truly become global now. We recently conducted research with executives and leaders in the U.S. and learned that currently 25-30% of business is already foreign (non-U.S.) and this is expected to increase 7% within the next 3-5 years. The #1 issue that emerged for globalization is adaptability – to change and to culture. So here’s the good news for you, as a leader…

…Yes, you can become more culturally adaptable.

What is cultural adaptability?

Ability to recognize, respond and work effectively with people, from different dominant ethnic and sub-cultures, who have different underlying values, assumptions, backgrounds, and perspectives from you. Culture can be defined in many ways including the set of norms and expectations that govern behaviors of any group – corporate culture, ethnic culture – which all have a set of sub-cultures.
Our ultimate goal here is to increase cultural proficiency – “the intentional integration of commonalities and cultural differences.”*

Some myths about cultural adaptability:

Myth 1: Being bi-cultural = culturally adaptable
Myth 2: I have only lived in one country so I can’t be adaptable
Myth 3: Speaking multiple languages = culturally adaptable

Myth 1: Being bi-cultural = culturally adaptable

• Being bi-cultural describes someone who is able to relate to two distinct cultures in one nation or geographic area. As a bi-cultural Korean-American (someone born in the US of Korean ethnicity), I do understand some of the values, expectations and perspectives from both Korean and from American culture. However, what about the underlying systems and beliefs of why there are differences? What is common? What even makes me a U.S. American? What are some orientations that I have that I may not be aware of?
• There is a difference between understanding another culture’s traditions and being truly culturally adaptable and proficient although understanding is a start!

Myth 2: I have only lived in one country so I can’t be adaptable

• Yes, it is ideal if you are able to be immersed into another country, leave your comfort zone and learn by living. However, even this will not guarantee automatic entry into the world of ‘cultural proficiency.’ In fact, some of the least culturally adaptable I have met were foreigners living abroad who could not understand why things were not done the ‘right’ way (i.e., the way they were most familiar with due to their own cultural biases). So what does this mean? It means that there are a set of skills, knowledge and mindsets that can be developed and shifted from where you are to increase your ability to adapt. You can begin the journey right where you are.

Myth 3: Speaking multiple languages = culturally adaptable

• Speaking multiple languages is a powerful and helpful way to immerse yourself into another culture and increase your adaptability. While language is an extremely important part of culture, it is not all. On the flip side, one can be culturally adaptable and understand mindsets and belief systems without speaking the language. I have had the pleasure of working with individuals who don’t speak the language but have spent their lives working in cultures that were not their own and learned the nuances of communication styles, relationship norms, values, and cultural orientations. Armed with this knowledge and experience, they are able to adjust how they interact and influence others to be most effective.

We have just begun to scratch the surface here as it is a rich topic. If you are interested in becoming more culturally adaptable and learning more, please contact us to build cross-cultural capabilities for your teams. We cover topics including:

• Tangible benefits of cultural adaptability
• Cultural Adaptability Journey
• Cultural Dimensions
• Specific case studies and examples of how organizations have been successful at adapting to their local markets

*Mitchell Hammer, Ph.D., Intercultural Development Inventory, IDI, LLC.