Embracing Cultural Differences in the Workplace

How to connect with your coworkers from different backgrounds and become culturally aware.

Written by Eden Baniel

1 month ago

Like many others, I walked into the office on my very first day of work feeling a mix of excitement and anticipation. My first impression was, “Wow, this is different.” It wasn’t just the design of the co-working space that threw me off, considering how different it was from any other office I’d been in, but it was also the wide variety of people within it that caught me by surprise. After a few hours of interacting with my new coworkers, I started to pick up on some slight changes in tone, personality, and other patterns of interaction. What I ended up with? A bit of culture shock.

Having been born in Israel, but raised in the United States, I know a little about what it’s like to have a split identity. When I’m in the U.S., I’m told that I’m often straightforward, honest, and sometimes bold. While in Israel, I can appear shy, modest, and introverted at times. Through my experiences, I’ve learned that the way we portray ourselves to others is relative to our surroundings and the people within them – their behavior patterns, habits, and traditions. 

Within the U.S., I attend the University of Michigan, and I have had experience working both in Chicago and in New York City. While I noticed some cultural discrepancies between those two particular states, the differences between them were less stark than what I noticed when I came to work in Tel Aviv. In a more general sense, I’ve learned that things are a bit less formal, and more upfront. To survive in the workplace, you need to be a go-getter, so you can learn how to get what you need and not take no for an answer. In the end, I learned more from coming to work in Tel Aviv for 2 months than I ever did in simply visiting Israel for a vacation. In working here, I’ve grown and connected more with Israelis in a way I hadn’t been able to before.

Working in a co-working space, specifically, was a much different experience from any other job I previously had. Being inside a co-working space, you’re surrounded by a wide variety of individuals. They might be sitting right next to you, or you may run into them in the kitchen when you grab your daily cup of coffee. Either way, you are closely connected to the other individuals within your office – whether they’re your team members or they work for another company, you can interact with them daily. This makes it even more important that an understanding be created between individuals to unify and connect.

Even if you work in the same country you’ve always lived in, if you work in an open-space office or co-working environment, you may come across individuals from vastly different backgrounds and experiences. Many of the different kinds of people you interact with may be from countries you’ve never been to before or they may have backgrounds you’re less familiar with. As such, it’s important to not only understand that these cultural differences exist, but to find a way to embrace them, so you can grow and connect with your coworkers.

1. Expand your cultural awareness

Learning about different cultures is the best way to go about connecting with individuals from diverse backgrounds. If you know someone was born and raised in another country, invest your time in learning more about that country’s values and traditions. Making an effort to learn more about different cultures can assist you in the way you interact with new people. If you’re not sure about something, ask questions, and remember to be polite. A little goes a long way.

2. Share your personal experiences

Sharing personal anecdotes or stories can help you form a bridge and get to know someone whose background differs from yours. When you share your own stories, you allow people to get to know you better, while simultaneously demonstrating that you’re open and are willing to get to know them, too. An anecdote is like a personal introduction to yourself. Whether it’s a funny story from your childhood, or something that happened to you yesterday, it’s a way of demonstrating who you are to another person. Don’t be shy, and share something about yourself. Once you do, you may find that others are more willing to share with you, too.

3. Be sensitive to differences

You may learn that for certain cultures, some things are appropriate, while others aren’t. Remember to be considerate, and not to take things personally. Habits, traditions, and values differ greatly from one culture to the next. An excellent example is the role of eye contact and how differently it is used and perceived across the world. In Western cultures, eye contact is considered appropriate and is an important tool for social interaction. While in Asian cultures, the opposite tends to be more true. As a great amount of importance is placed on respect within countries such as China or Japan, it can be seen as disrespectful for subordinates to make steady eye contact with their superiors. Try and be considerate of the differences in behavior within separate cultures. This can help prevent any possible future misunderstandings.

 

In co-working spaces, especially, a great deal of emphasis is placed on respect, connection, and growth. In expanding your awareness of people’s backgrounds, sharing more about yourself, and being sensitive to any differences in values or traditions, you can create a deeper bond between yourself and your co-workers. Follow these tips, and like me, you’ll learn to bridge that gap one step at a time, while becoming a more culturally aware and perceptive person.

 

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