Working with Different Cultures

When you’re an expat in a new place, you have to get used to a new culture, with new types of people.  Since I work in international development, I’m always working with colleagues and “clients” from different countries. Primarily, the country that I happen to be working in, but that’s not always the case. I also end up working with other people from all walks of life:

  • Young and old
  • Men and women
  • Liberals and conservatives
  • Christians and Muslims
  • Volunteers and directors
  • Partiers and quiet types
  • Locals and international staff
  • Every profession imaginable….

A lot of jobs these days have a requirement along the lines of “Values diversity”. It’s always a tough thing to answer. Of course, I value diversity, I’ve worked all over the world. But what do you actually say? “I worked with “x” group of people and they contributed a lot…” – not great I think. But I do love that working with a diverse group of people is included on job applications. Of course, some are probably just doing that for legal purposes or corporate social responsibility reasons, but probably not all of them.  I really do think that having a diverse group is more likely to get you new opinions. Although this might cause a bit more discussion, I think it will ultimately lead to the most successful “product” for your organization.

Here’s an example. In my current office (in Bolivia), there are so many knowledgeable people. The fact that everyone has a different background and experience is so useful, and I learn so much from the people I encounter on a daily basis.  Here are just 5 of the people I interact with regularly:

  • A volunteer from Cuba/Venezuela who helps me practice my Spanish every day in the office. He also knows everyone at the school (so he can create connections), and will help you with silly administrative stuff (like opening a bank account or getting a library card). I let him use my computer and we practice English together. Plus, I let him drink all my rum when he comes over for parties at my house! 😉
  • Another volunteer (from Canada) is newly arrived but I enjoy her company a lot. We have such different skills that we can really help each other out. She knows so much about seemingly everything – hunting, carpentry, farming, metal music, travelling, etc. She helps to create the initial ideas for great programs, and I polish everything up on the computer. I love that she’s not afraid to speak her mind, and it gives me more confidence to voice my opinions as well.
  • One of the office staff (local Bolivian) is the sweetest lady ever. Not only does she make an effort to speak in short English phrases and also ask you how your day is going, she also knows everything. If you want to find out about local vacations, understand certain Bolivian customs, or just know which bus to take to a certain city – she can help you out. I try to help her with a bit of administrative/graphic design stuff when there’s a big conference at the school and we’re in need of formal envelopes, programs, and invitations.
  • A fellow Canadian lady runs a small bed and breakfast in a nearby town. She’s a great friend. I love to talk to her about everything going on in Bolivia. She even let Steve and I stay at her beautiful, little place. I let her vent to me about crazy stories of running a BnB in rural Bolivia – like all the problems she has encountered just trying to get fresh water from her well! I also try to promote her place to other travelers I see, because I think it really is a great, authentic, Bolivian experience if you travel there.
  • Another volunteer who works with a different organization is from Costa Rica. He seems to know everyone in town, and knows where all the coolest events are happening. When we arrived he showed us everywhere we needed to know, and it was great introduction to the city. I’m not sure that I contribute much to his placement, but I’m hoping I’ll have the chance in the future!

As you can see, everyone has some way to contribute. Everyone teaches you new things, and you help them with other things in return.  In design, we like to say that “everyone is an expert of their own experiences”. When you design something for someone, they’re the one that can tell you the processes they normally go through, and what will fit in with their life and culture.

Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of people think that “diverse” people are only hired to check a box. They think they hired with less skills and knowledge them themselves. I think that’s a completely wrong attitude… Would a homogeneous group of old, white men probably finish a task quickly because they all agree? Yup! Would that idea be creative, inclusive, innovative, and solve anew problem?  Probably not… Diversity gives you different ways of looking at a problem, and that’s exactly what leads to great new ideas.

Who doesn’t want great new ideas, innovation, and inclusion in their organization (or in their life, for that matter)?


One thought on “Working with Different Cultures

  1. Thank you for sharing! I lived in a few countries a few years ago too and I must say, I enjoyed working with people from all around the World too! Some stories are really funny, e.g., my friend from Brasilia loves to live in Europe, because he likes forests a lot! He said, that it’s impossible to go to the jungles in Brasilia, because you will be beaten by two snakes and three spiders :)) There is a big difference in European forest! Anyway, currently I live in my home country, but work in international company. I also wrote a blog post about work with different cultures, I hope you will like it 🙂


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