We don’t do that like you guys

“You know, we Indians are bad with small talk. We don’t do that like you guys.” One example. One great example of a challenge of working in a diverse, multicultural team, two simple sentences that my colleagues from India just told me last week when we were discussing potential ways to enhance communication within our team. Two sentences that stand for what I experience everyday working for Zify, a small startup with offices in Hyderabad, India and Paris, France.

We work for the same company, try to grow the startup together. We share the same goals, we face the same challenges. Skype, Hangout, WhatsApp, Slack make us forget the 9200km that lie between us, we see each other every day. Yet, there are certain things that just cannot be bridged by technology. Or let me put it this way, what enters the screen in India sometimes differs tremendously from what appears on the screen in France and vice versa. The challenge? Developing a sensitivity and awareness for exactly that difference.

Let me give you some examples…

Every culture has its own body language. You cannot imagine how many misunderstandings we have had due to the famous Indian head-nod. Anurag, do I need to contact XY? -Head-nod- No, I understand and continue my work. It is only weeks later when we still haven’t heard from XY when I realize that shaking the head from one to the other side actually meant Yes. But to me, even after working for Zify for almost a year the Indian head-nod still seems like a big big mystery. I have tried to understand, I have even tried to imitate but without any success.

There is no other topic where the different nationalities could be more different than when it comes to punctuality. Meeting scheduled for 11 am, the Swiss will be there at 10.55 am, the French comes in at 11.10 am and the Indian arrives at 11.15 am. I have figured that it works best sticking to the French habits and am since struggling with trying to come in 15min late. I guess the idea here is to be flexible and adapt to situations.

There is nothing else that represents a culture as good as food and eating habits. Same for us, one of the things I enjoy the most is our daily team lunch-break. We usually bring our own lunch and often have a table that could not be anymore stereotypical. The French savouring a quiche with salad, carefully arranged on a proper plate, followed by a petit mousse au chocolat. The Swiss enjoying some kind of salad, Italian, Asian,.. but always containing some kind of cheese. And the Indian eating a long cooked, spicy curry, skilfully by hand with the roti bread. It makes me smile how much we have all gotten used to this lunch situation, not even noticing the food/eating habits anymore.

I could go on with examples like these for a long time. All of them keep amazing me over and over again, the little things that make me love to work for this small, diverse team. I have picked up a couple of Hindi words, sometimes I don’t even realize anymore when Anurag confirms my questions with a Hindi “Thik hai”. But as much as I love our cultural uniquenesses, they do make things complicated at times as well. I have had to explain Anurag that his long and loud “Ah” confirming statements (similar to our “Hm”) can be irritating and inappropriate in Europe. I still get annoyed at times waiting for my colleagues being a bit late. I carefully pay attention not to raise my voice too much when I get upset. I sometimes wish I’d get more direct and straightforward feedback. And yes, at times I would love to chitchat a bit more with my colleagues. Because discovering another culture is incredibly enriching, noticing differences, understanding its’ origins, finding ways to move closer and interact in a way that is appropriate and comfortable for every single individual!

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