How to Deal with the Fear of Making Mistakes in Cross - Cultural Situations

Author: Joy Huang

When an empathetic U.S. executive tries to learn about the Chinese culture and is filled with useful information, one of two things usually happens. In one instance, he may be emboldened by the knowledge and is ready to face the challenge. In another instance, as I frequently hear, "I don't know what to do now. I don't want to offend someone. But I also don't want to appear always compromising. When should I push hard and when not to? I feel like more confused today than yesterday."

If this sometimes paralyzing dilemma sounds anything like what you might have experienced, here are some strategies that will help you make the next step forward:

1. Be yourself.

We can only successfully manage human relations if we are true and authentic. This includes cross - cultural relationships. The key is to recognize that, with the new awareness and knowledge you have gained about your own culture as well as of the others', the definition of your "self" has expanded. If, for example, you are an European American male, you might be to some extent German critical, Chinese indirect, Italian ironic and African American personal, in addition to your primary European American male explicit style. As long as your behaviors emerge from the feeling for the other culture, they are all authentically "you".

It is also important to differentiate behaviors from personalities. Let's say behaving in a low - key humble manner out of respect for the Chinese culture may work for your particular circumstance. It does not mean you have to change your personality to behave like that to everyone else you know, too. It also does not mean you need to "pretend". Trust in yourself that you have the ability to style switch in authentic ways in dealing with different cultures.

2.Take risks.

How can we become fluent in another culture that is not native to our own? Practice. Practice. Practice. Now that you have acquired some understanding and knowledge of the other culture, try to use the new tactics and see how they work. To avoid any major missteps, start with the low - risk activities and gradually increase the level.

For example, a low - risk activity could be trying to understand whether your Chinese counterpart meant "yes" or "no". You can try to ask clarifying questions and open - ended questions, etc. A high - risk activity could be negotiating a critical contract. Sometimes we do not have the luxury to gradually practice our skills. In these instances, it is a good idea to seek the help of a trusted adviser.

3.Be flexible.

To thrive in cross - cultural situations calls for great agility and flexibility in our mindsets. When dealing with the unknown, there is always going to be a little uncertainty and a little mystery. Keeping an open mind helps us to relax. It also allows us to withhold judgment too soon, a critical skill in intercultural competency. Having this mindset is sometimes even more useful than knowing the specifics of the cultural codes. It allows us to share empathy with the others, and to be willing to take the necessary risks.

In conjunction with this, being perceptive and observant can serve us well too. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." This old saying holds true here. Watch how the others behave and the reactions they get. Make it your own and try it out. You will soon experience the triumphant feeling of "getting it right" when things fall into their natural places.

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