What about cultural fluency?

A few weeks ago I was sitting at the terrace of a restaurant in Santa Cruz de Tenerife and I was struggling to communicate with the waitress, as my Spanish is still in its very initial phase, and the waitress wasn’t speaking English at all, but she needed to make me understand that the table is only available until 7, as there was a reservation from then on. We somehow managed to understand each other, but later on I got to thinking about how the whole scene didn’t give me a sense of not belonging, even though we literally didn’t understand each other, and I was the one coming from somewhere else, and she was at home. But all in all I felt completely comfortable, without any sense of outsiderness. How can that be? And then I got to thinking that maybe it was because I was eating my favourite type of nachos and drinking still water, which is basically what I do at home as well, if I go out. I wasn’t eating something entirely unfamiliar to me, and after all I wasn’t even sitting in an unfamiliar setting. It was just as any other terrace back in Romania, and other than the language, nothing seemed to be different. And then when I got back to Costa del Silencio, which was my temporary home in Tenerife, I walked by a house and I started laughing as I saw the sign over the door: „Bates Motel”. Well, I wouldn’t go in there, I thought. And I realized that that sign, be it as morbid as it is, gave me a sense of belonging, a sense of security somehow. Because the Bates Motel reference was something we shared with the owners of that house: it was a shared experience, a cultural clue that we both had access to. It was as if even that minimal „discomfort” caused by the language barriers back in Santa Cruz had now dissolved in this newly found common ground. And this is a shining example, I think, of how language skills are just one part of being able to connect with people from different cultures, but there are other really important factors as well. And cultural fluency is surely one of the most important ones.

We could define cultural fluency as the ability to easily and naturally interact with people from different cultures, picking up the nonverbal and non-linguistic information, and giving relevant and genuine reactions. Briefly we could say that cultural fluency is always feeling at home in the given context of a culture. Recognizing the Bates Motel reference for example was a moment of cultural fluency, when both the people from that house and myself knew the context exactly and we understood each other perfectly, even if we weren’t even talking to each other. Cultural fluency is basically a matter of context, and doesn’t depend so much on language, but rather on common experiences, and common knowledge. Of course language plays a really important part in it as well, but there are non-language related parts of it also. You can improve your cultural fluency by gathering knowledge: the more you know about a certain culture, the more references you will be able to pick up and understand. The more you know about how the life of a society is organized, the more able you will be to understand its members’ actions, reactions, expectations etc. This knowledge can be gained from reading, learning, but most of all getting in contact with different cultures, and interacting with the people. In intercultural business it is just as important as having the right language skills, if not even more important sometimes. Either as a global leader, or part of a team, fluency in international communication is key to business success. And while when it comes to shared experience and context we all first think of gaining knowledge about the other culture, it is just as important to see that there are lots of shared experiences across cultures as well. Think for example about the sentences like „To be or not to be?” or „May the force be with you”. There are lots and lots of countries where these function as common ground. This is just a reminder that most of the time you don’t have to start from scratch, as in today’s globalized world you can easily find something both cultures share. But if you really want to focus on your cultural fluency, then you can dig deeper in other cultures. Humour for example is a really good way to start. Everyone knows the feeling when you show someone something you find hilarious, and they just keep staring. Of course this can happen because of differences in personality as well, but many times it is a question of cultural differences. As humour is almost always, (but I would rather vote on always) culturally defined, understanding it across different cultures can play a major part in developing cultural fluency, which then can easily be translated into business success in an international environment, simply because it creates a shared context, and humour is generally a way of creating strong bonds, as it can strenghten the feeling of belonging to the same group, and build trust between people. But aside humour, there are many ways to build your cultural fluency: taking part in important events, festivals, rituals in a country can also be fruitful. Taking the time to know people, their ideologies and beliefs again is something that not only helps you grow as a person, but develop your fluency and skills needed to attain intercultural business success.

It takes some amount of intuition, and time for sure, but it’s an investment that is not only worth, but I would say indispensable to make if you are working towards business success in an international environment.

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