Navigating the stormy seas of a multicultural workplace

Written by Maria Magdaleena Lamp // Also shared on Startups.co.

Have you ever asked a coworker from a distant and bizarre culture — say, an Estonian — how they’re doing, only to have them actually tell you how they were? In full sentences? Or perhaps you’ve experienced the opposite: You — a literal-minded northern European, for example — greet an American colleague with a “What’s up?” but they don’t think of it as a real question, so all you get in return is a simple “Hi.” And now you’ll never know what’s up.

(With that in mind, do you ever find yourself making sweeping generalizations about nationalities because it’s easier to deal with neatly labeled boxes than with unique individuals? Yeah — I do too.)

Let’s go deeper down the rabbit hole:

Do you ever accidentally address an office mate in a language you know they don’t speak? Or maybe you sometimes inadvertently mimic others’ accents. Or forget what language you’re supposed to be speaking or typing in at all, causing your brain to buffer furiously.

Welcome to the beautiful and occasionally terrifying social minefield of a multicultural workplace.

As our team at Jobbatical grows, we’re adding more nationalities to the mix, currently weighing in at 16 people from approximately five different nationalities (I say approximately, because nobody seems to be from one single country these days). This has led to plenty of musings and discussions on the subject of communication. Here are a few things we try to keep in mind when we get stuck behind cultural and language barriers.

THINK OF PEOPLE AS INDIVIDUALS, NOT STEREOTYPES

Not surprisingly, stereotyping has a negative effect on the way people communicate and perform tasks they’re given. More to the point, a recent study found that nationality is a poor indicator of work-related cultural values.

So why do we still do it? Everyone thinks they know better, but it’s far too easy to slide down the slippery slope of generalizing — it saves time on actually getting to know people. And, infuriatingly enough, there often seems to be a kernel of truth in a lot of the stereotypes we encounter in our daily lives. Perhaps you’ve observed that Americans smile a lot but don’t really want to know how you’ve been, or that Italians can get a bit judgmental about your choice of pizza toppings. (“Pineapple? PINEAPPLE? You’re dead to me.”) Once you have these ideas in your head — confirmation bias ahoy — they’re stuck there.

When you realize how easy it is to stereotype without noticing it, you can make a conscious effort to be aware of people’s cultural backgrounds, without attaching a bunch of assumptions and expectations.

Speaking of assumptions…

DON’T ASSUME THAT EVERYONE THINKS THE SAME WAY YOU DO

Annoyingly*, people are all very different, running around willy-nilly with their opinions and beliefs. This means that breakdowns in communication will happen. It doesn’t even take many nationalities for that — you just need more than one human being. Sooner or later you’ll get the feeling that people just aren’t getting it. A thing that is obvious to you is not obvious to someone else. Never fear. There’s an app for that, and it’s conveniently built into your brain.

It’s the magical ability known as empathy — the trainable skill of putting yourself in another person’s position. And it turns out it also makes employees happier at work, so keep that right supra-marginal gyrus (the part of your brain that is in charge of your empathy levels) well-oiled at all times. Once you’ve got the empathy bit down, you’ll find it a whole lot easier to unleash that other magical ability: patience. And once you’ve mastered both empathy and patience, well, you’ll be so zen you’ll breeze through any conflict.

*Please note that this is a joke, and that Jobbatical celebrates individuality. Seriously, we’re crazy about it.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK “WHAT?” FOR THE HUNDREDTH TIME

Sometimes the urge to just smile and nod can be overwhelming: When someone has a strong accent, when the sentence structure just isn’t making sense to you, or the gods of comprehension simply aren’t on your side that day. Instead of asking your conversational partner to repeat themselves, you’re tempted to go “Hahaha, yeah,” and hope for the best.

You might get away with this in casual conversation, but when it comes to the workplace, always do your best to minimize the amount of information that gets lost in translation — or in awkwardness, as the case may be. Do you really want to go around agreeing to things without knowing what they are? You might discover you’re now in charge of cleaning the coffee machine at the end of each day. And you don’t even drink coffee.

EMBRACE THE AWKWARDNESS

So you realize halfway through a conversation that your accent is shifting, suddenly sounding suspiciously like your colleague’s. Now you’re panicking because you think they think you’re making fun of them (or that you’re just weird). Don’t worry about it — mimicking accents is your brain’s way of making it easier for you to understand others. That’s actually a pretty neat trick. Well done, brain!

Another potential source of language-specific office awkwardness is the occasional glitch in code-switching (code switching is what you’re doing when you change languages mid-conversation). When you typically use more than one language in your everyday life, it can sometimes take a few seconds to figure out which one to use next. While this might make you feel a bit silly, it’s what scientists call not a big deal [citation needed]. It happens to all of us, and nobody minds. Seriously. If anything, it’s pretty cool that you speak more than one language, so embrace those switch glitches (and try saying that five times fast).

LASTLY (AND MOST IMPORTANTLY), DON’T BE A JERK

This is the crème de la crème of life hacks, the very quintessence of useful advice, the golden rule we should all get tattooed on our foreheads. It applies in every situation you can think of. It is, in fact, such an important life skill that it should have its own religion.

There is only one commandment we follow here at the church of not being a jerk: Would a jerk do or say the thing you’re thinking of doing or saying? If yes, do NOT do or say the thing!

In the context of a multicultural workplace, the noble art of not being a jerk can take many forms: Don’t be racist. Be sensitive to cultural differences. Use the right language for every situation so people don’t feel left out. And — oddly specifically — please ask people if they eat pork before you cook a pork-based dinner for them (I may or may not be speaking from experience).


To sum it up with a food metaphor, a culturally diverse team is like eating a slightly overripe mango: messy at times, but totally worth the hassle (and probably has magical life-changing properties). And it’s really not that difficult once you know the tricks.

Every day we share the TL;DR version of everything interesting happening in the startup world in the Startups Daily Newsletter. Sign up here to get future issues.

Got an interesting story? Awesome. Send it our way — stories@startups.co

If you dig our stuff, please hit that little ♥ to spread the word.