Cultural Awareness

Written by Colin Roberston

We have 11 official languages in South Africa, making it a culturally rich country. This also means that there is a wide variety of cultural differences within the South African context. 

A question that we should ask ourselves when interacting with one another is, do we consciously take these cultural differences into account? How do we communicate along these cultural lines? And then, how far do we go in trying to understand the differences and put them into play in our daily activities at work and in our personal lives?

To hold a constructive discussion about culture and cultural awareness, we need to have various skills. I believe we need to start with the understanding that different cultures have different norms and standards. But perhaps more pertinently, we need to understand that individuals are shaped by, but not bound by, their cultural background. Sometimes, we need to meet people more than halfway. 

As managers, we need to be aware of our own inter-cultural skills. The question to ask ourselves is, are we competent? 

There are basically four pillars which underpin intercultural competence, namely skills, attitudes, the understanding of culture, and effective communication (as illustrated in the diagram below). You will probably surmise that you are already applying some of these competencies in your daily activities. But by identifying how advanced our skills are (or are not), we, the managers, can further develop our leadership and communication skills. 

At Multotec, we need to recognise that intercultural competence is the ability to function effectively, across cultural lines. We should be able to think and act appropriately, as well as communicate and work effectively with, individuals from different cultural backgrounds. We should also understand that intercultural communication requires knowledge, learned skills, understanding and empathy.

I gained personal insight into the importance of  positive intercultural communication within a workplace, during a Christmastime visit to my son’s home in Malawi. Gary is the Maintenance Foreman for a non-profit organisation called Child Legacy. He spends most of his days servicing hospital equipment, as well as assisting with agricultural projects. I was in his workshop, reading my emails, when a conversation took place behind me. I did not understand the conversation, so I assumed it was the staff changing shift. When I turned around, I saw my son speaking in Chichewa (the local language) to his team. He had taken the time to learn the local language – going beyond what was expected of him - to better communicate with his team, and in turn, be a better manager. 

I am reminded of Nelson Mandela’s wise words: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”.

This prompts the question: Is it not time to learn a new language, in order to deepen our cultural awareness, and to touch the hearts of the individuals we call our colleagues?

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