Bridging Cultures for Safety (Intercultural Intelligence): Sharing a few examples

Episode 061

Jan 31, 2024

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Bridging Cultures for Safety

Travelling is the finest education, provided you're open to exploring other cultures, embracing diverse ways of life, and daring to step out of your comfort zone.

What does this have to do with Bridging Cultures in our workplace? Sometimes, it's as simple as taking a moment to step back, share a laugh, and then dive into the learning.

Today's episode marks the third instalment in our three-part series on Bridging Cultures for Safety, which is all about intercultural intelligence.

In the previous two episodes, we shared some tools we utilise in our Bridging Cultures for Safety program.

The first tool we explored was the Three Colours of Worldview.

These three perspectives provide a broad lens through which we see the world:

1️⃣ Honour <> Shame  [how do we honour those around us?]
2️⃣ Innocence <> Guilt  [what do we think is right? How do we do the right thing?]
3️⃣ Power <> Fear  [how do we generate life-giving influence and empowerment to others?]

Contrary to what some may think, all three have a flip side.

- Excessive innocence and guilt can lead to a lot of litigation.
- Too much honour and shame can take a negative turn, just as abusing power can.

We recognise these as broad viewpoints, and each of us carries a blend of these views.

For instance, in Karin's case, her stronger inclinations tend towards innocence <> guilt due to her upbringing and education.

However, living in different countries and growing up in diverse cultures – she comes from an immigrant family with influences from middle Europe – has added dimensions of honour <> shame, and even a touch of power <> fear at times.

This mix is what makes us all unique.

In Episode 60, we discussed the 12 Dimensions of Culture.

Without listing them all, these dimensions encompass everything from communication styles and personal growth definitions to accountability, social status, decision-making processes, and planning approaches.

For instance, think about how we communicate – are we direct or indirect? We all fall somewhere on these scales, and it's fascinating to examine your report and say,
"Yep, that's me!"

However, the real challenge lies in working effectively with those who have different perspectives. That's where the true excitement and difficulty come in.

But it hinges on a willingness to understand.


"When I started working and living in different countries – I'm on my fifth continent now – the move from Australia to South Africa seemed simple. People often assume Australians and South Africans live similar lives, but let me tell you, I experienced severe culture shock.

I distinctly remember my first nine months in a region of Gauteng, just outside Johannesburg. It's an area where English isn't the first language (it turns out it's probably the third language), which was a shock because I grew up thinking everyone in South Africa spoke English.

I was also on my own, in a new job, in an unfamiliar environment with limited support. I didn't even know how to seek the help I might need. Those initial months were a steep learning curve, and I recall a three-day period in August of that year when I felt paralysed.

Funny enough, it was in the aftermath of that challenging time that I was introduced to the world of intercultural intelligence, gaining a deeper understanding of it."

So, when we travel, we gain exposure.

When we work in multicultural environments – take, for instance, an oil rig with diverse teams – we're exposed to numerous countries, worldviews, and approaches across the 12 dimensions. Different foods at different times of the day – it's a whole new world.

Nuala had a conversation with a client about travel being the best education earlier this week and how it offers a unique education, whether for yourself, your children, or your teams. They realised how much they've learned about themselves and others through the journeys.

And also that over time, they may have become somewhat blasé about it, growing accustomed to diverse experiences and developing a more open-minded perspective.

We need to recognise that people aren't difficult; they're simply different.

This journey becomes an ongoing loop of learning and understanding - an ongoing process. The key is figuring out how to improve the situation, not just for those around us but for our well-being, too.

There's excitement but also a significant sense of apprehension about interacting with people from a different country and culture. Many people share this feeling when entering a new cultural environment, but not everyone dares to admit it openly, especially in today's world.

We all go through our version of the grief cycle when adapting to new environments. Uncertainty sets in, things sometimes go differently than planned, and stress can take its toll.

There's bargaining, anger, and eventually, acceptance and realisation that you can adapt and overcome.

Earlier, we mentioned that sometimes you have to share a laugh and then move on to learning.

We find reading some travel reviews quite amusing and often look at some of them and think, "How on earth did that end up in a travel review?" But it's all part of the adventure, and looking back, it can be quite a hoot.

So, let's share a few of these quirky travel anecdotes. Here's one which reminds us a bit of Karin's experience with the challenges of English in South Africa:

E061_Bridging Cultures - Why Don't You Speak English - Image

"Why doesn't everyone speak English?

We went to Spain, and no one understood English.

We'll never go back there again."

You frequently hear that sentiment here in the UK.

Interestingly, folks from this part of the world who visit Spain often form their own little communities there. They wholeheartedly embrace many aspects of Spanish life, like the food and the sunny weather.

But sometimes, the language hurdle becomes too much.
So, they create these little pockets of familiarity in foreign lands as a way to deal with it.

Here's another funny one:

E061_Bridging Cultures - Siesta Time - Image

"Actually, it's lazy of the local shopkeepers to close in the afternoons.

I often need to buy things during Siesta time.

This should be banned."

We could easily get used to a Siesta-based lifestyle. It's great because you feel so refreshed after a quick afternoon nap.

Nuala remembers the first time she went to a country where Siesta time was quite normal, and at first, it was a bit, 'You do what?' and then she realised it was amazing.

Once you embrace it, you start appreciating it - no need to rush around at lunchtime. You can leisurely sit down, enjoy your meal, savour the flavours, be in the moment, take care of yourself, and then get back to work. Sounds like a brilliant plan.

Another story, this time about food preferences:

"I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local convenience store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts."

Now, what exactly constitutes 'proper biscuits'?

Because proper biscuits in South Africa are very different from proper biscuits in Scotland, Australia, and so on.

And coming back to the language issue, here's a review that made us chuckle:

"There were too many people speaking the local language. The receptionist spoke the local language. The food was local.
Nobody told us there would be so many foreigners."

Whether it's about food, moments of spirituality, or the countless facets of different countries – that's what makes it all so wonderfully unique.

You can view it as a challenge or find it funny, but in the end, it's all about your perspective and how you express it.

In the workplace, it's essential to navigate cultural differences with sensitivity, and humour can be a valuable tool for breaking the ice.

However, it's necessary to use appropriate humour that respects cultural nuances.

Sometimes, jokes that may seem funny in one culture can fall flat in another, highlighting the need for cultural awareness.

When integrating these cultural insights into work environments, remember that workplace rules apply to everyone, but understanding individual differences is more nuanced than simply labelling someone as shy or extroverted.

Embracing these differences can lead to a more interesting and harmonious workplace.

In the past, there have been instances of inappropriate jokes in cross-cultural settings, which can create discomfort.

So, it's crucial to assess the appropriateness of humour in specific contexts and be mindful of cultural sensitivities when using humour as a means of communication.

In the Working Environment

Understanding cultural differences and individual personalities is crucial for effective teamwork in the workplace. It's not about labelling or categorising people but about appreciating each person's unique strengths and preferences.

By fostering an inclusive environment, teams can develop their own common culture and language of understanding, moving from individuality to partnership.

For instance, a workshop was held with a multicultural team to create cultural awareness.

Participants discussed the unique aspects of their countries or regions, gaining a deeper understanding of each other's backgrounds.

The workshop also introduced the concept of intercultural polarities, where participants had to position themselves along a rope to represent their preferences.

This exercise led to valuable discussions on adapting communication and relationships to accommodate diverse styles.

Leaders, in particular, need to be agile in their approach to relationships, as what works for one team member may not work for another.

Embracing these differences can foster better team cohesion and understanding.

Overall, understanding and navigating cultural and personality differences is an ongoing process, requiring a constant dance of adaptation and learning.

One exercise involves asking individuals to draw the process of making toast.
This simple task can reveal cultural differences in understanding and expectations.

E061_Bridging Cultures - Toast - Image
Listen in for the full story

In one group, one expat found that everyone else's drawings differed from his own, leading to a discussion about cultural perspectives and assumptions.

It highlighted the importance of curiosity and not making assumptions when working in diverse environments.

The exercise emphasised that what may be common sense in one culture may not hold true in another and that leaders need to approach new cultural environments with an open mind and a willingness to learn rather than imposing their own beliefs and assumptions.

This approach fosters psychological safety and encourages open communication, reducing the risk of misunderstandings and mistakes.

In the context of Bridging Cultures, coaching plays a significant role.

It involves helping individuals ask the right questions and avoid making assumptions. This approach encourages open dialogue and problem-solving.

For example, when people were unhappy about the absence of roast potatoes, the importance of asking for what you want became evident. By approaching the camp boss and making a request, roast potatoes were provided the next day.

The lesson is that asking questions and seeking solutions is essential if you're dissatisfied with your environment or team's performance.

The Bridging Cultures for Safety program focuses on teaching individuals how to navigate such conversations comfortably and effectively. Light bulb moments and continuous learning are integral aspects of this process.

What are some Cultural Intelligence Challenges in Safety

Consider these questions:

  • Do you find it difficult to integrate your multicultural teams due to negative cultural stereotypes, cultural expectations, defensiveness and resistance to change?
  • Are conflicting working styles impacting communication and safety in your workplace?
  • Due to language and cultural barriers, is professional communication misinterpreted and difficult to understand across languages and cultures?
  • Do you have many good rules and processes, yet people still do not follow them?
  • Do you provide lots of leadership/skills training yet still do not get the results you are looking for?

Suppose you answered yes to any of these questions.

In that case, the impact on your team is likely ineffective communication, resulting in confusion, a lack of teamwork and low morale, and that's before we consider the safety culture implications.

Communicating across the many cultures in the workplace is critical in the most high-hazard environments, and it is easier said than done.

The good news is that we can help your teams:

  1. Understand that we are all different but must work under the same rules and regulations.
  2. Explore cultural diversity and how it impacts performance.
  3. Help leaders manage and lead in multicultural and diverse workplaces.

If you're curious and want to learn more about this, we invite you to engage in a conversation with us. We have a lot to offer, and you can experience tangible and quick results when people start communicating effectively.

Feel free to contact us at to learn more about other cultures and ways of being, and allow yourself to be adventurous enough to try something different and create a positive impact.

About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

And, if you enjoyed the show and gained value, please share with just one other person to help spread the word.

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