NOTE: This is Part II of a series of blog posts related to cross-cultural fluency and the family business.
How can one understand the experiences of disparate immigrant groups? Why is it important to do so? Say an immigrant starts a business and a very successful one at that—how does someone work with them? The key questions are “do you understand me?” and “can you connect with me?” If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” we will get nowhere. Of course, an issue needs to be identified before it can be addressed—and typically, the question of culture is never raised. Yet, I would suggest that the cultural dimension of the family enterprise is not simply one more factor to understand, but rather the filter or framework through which decisions are made.
A significant percentage of businesses throughout Canada are started by immigrants, and people whose cultures (“Subcultures”) diverge from the Canadian mainstream (the “Dominant Culture”). An understanding of this dynamic and, in particular, a recognition of the factors that remain consistent between different cultural groups, is useful to understand and relate to business owners from diverse cultural backgrounds.
This concept is commonly referred to as “cross-cultural fluency.” Cross-cultural fluency helps to facilitate empathy, understanding and facilitates communication. In large part, it is a subcomponent of emotional intelligence, a broad category that relates to how people effectively interact with one another. Cross-cultural fluency comprises three components: cultural knowledge, cross-cultural skills and cultural mindfulness.
First, a person can gain cultural knowledge. This can be achieved through multiple methods, such as access to various media channels, travel to other countries, or simply interact with people from a different culture. These experiences almost force individuals into engaging with another culture and understanding an environment in which things are done differently. This learning experience will be optimized by carefully identifying what is unique about one culture, analyzing why it is unique, and forecasting when and how this knowledge could be utilized in the future.
Second, cross-cultural skills consist of a broad set of abilities that are instrumental in intercultural communication. Many of these are relational skills. Does the person enjoy interacting with people from other cultures? Can they tolerate uncertainties, ambiguities and unexpected changes in an intercultural interaction? Can they change their behaviour according to the cultural demands? Can they empathize with people very different from themselves? Can they imagine the situation from another person’s perspective? Like many aspects of emotional intelligence, these skills can be learned and developed with practice.
Finally, there is cultural mindfulness which is the knowledge of and control over one’s thinking and learning, specifically with regard to cultural experiences and strategies. Being “culturally mindful” means being aware of the cultural context, consciously analyzing the interactive situation and planning courses of action for different cultural experiences.
One further way of enhancing cultural fluency is to understand a Subcultural group in relation to the immigrant experience specifically. While, of course, not every member of a Subculture is an immigrant, the experience is life-shaping for those who are immigrants and thus must be specifically addressed (it is also addressed as one of the specific factors of the Cross-Cultural Fluency Model). An appreciation of this immigrant experience, as part of being a subcultural group, will allow people to understand these individuals more fully. It’s about how to connect with people. This is at the core of their being—and if a person doesn’t understand this then they won’t understand them.