Working With Other Cultures

When picturing my career right out of college, I never would have expected to be working with people from all over the world, while still working in the United States.  My group of friends is not, admittedly, overly diverse in terms of upbringing and nationality; so I have lived and been surrounded by people that are largely similar to me.

Michigan State University, like most places of higher education, charges more and earns more revenue by admitting non-US born students, explaining why 15% (and growing) of the undergrad population in 2015 is represented by students born internationally.  Having the benefit of time and experience in the business world, one of my biggest regrets is not becoming more familiar with that 15% of students born outside the US and their various cultures.

Presence of Culture in Corporate America

Corporate America successfully fosters many different cultures.  It accepts them with open arms in all departments - marketing, finance, analytics, technology, human resources, and more.  I had, of course, heard about big companies outsourcing and offshoring their technology and customer support operations to other countries due to cost efficiencies.  But I didn’t realize the level with which I would work with different cultures - both that are outsourced and US-based employees.

One of my main technology contacts is from India and has developed into a strong working relationship.  He always asks me about my girlfriend, how my parents are doing, and what I was up to this past weekend.  One day I asked him, “why did you move from India to the US?”  He told me it has always been a dream, growing up as a kid in India, to move to the US.  This was incredibly surprising to me - he wanted to move thousands of miles away from friends and family to work a job in the US, and he did it!  This is something that we, US-born citizens, don’t always recognize the opportunity and resources we can access.  Just remember - there are millions of people all over the world that dream of being in your position, so be sure to take full advantage of the opportunity you’ve been given!

What surprised me about this, and other interactions with him is he is not much different than I am.  Despite our different backgrounds, we both want to make sure the other is doing well, that all is well with family, and work to achieve common goals.  This was important for me to realize, because instead of treating people from other countries like they are from another country, I started treating them as friends.  Getting to know him personally provided me with a stronger relationship, friend at work, and a better understanding of his culture.  But it also had benefits to my work - I found it easier to get work done in a pinch if I needed his assistance.

Outside of the example I provided above, I have worked, regularly, with employees from Bulgaria, England, Mexico, China, Brazil, and more.  I never thought I would work in such an integrated fashion with so many different cultures!  All of the people from these different countries bring unique skill sets, not necessarily because they are from another culture, but because they have diverse backgrounds.  Their background is, of course, shaped as a result of their upbringing in a specific culture.  This adds a special aspect to Corporate America as it provides a wide range of perspectives and opinions, all based on different personal foundations.  Having these different perspectives drives projects to new boundaries, compared with having an isolated set of perspectives, and makes impact on our customers and the bottom line.  

Comparison to Undergrad

As mentioned previously, universities are seeking more and more students born internationally, as they boost revenues.  This means there is no shortage of students from international backgrounds and cultures in your dorms and classes.  From my experience, these students were not integrated with the students from the US.  Despite the desire to meet and learn about US students and culture, students born internationally that attend school in the US did not venture outside of their cultures.  Chinese students would talk only to other Chinese students, for example.  Why is that?

A lot of the reason for this is because it makes students more comfortable.  As a young adult, you cling to things that are familiar, so talking to those in your natural language rather than your second language, risking making an embarrassing grammar mistake, makes a lot of sense.  Another reason is because we, US-born students, do not (did not, when I was a student) make a huge effort to include students from other countries in our social circles.  The cultures were different and there is a language barrier to overcome.

The opportunity, however, is huge for both international and domestic-born students to assimilate.  As a student, if I would have known how much I would work with other cultures in Corporate America, I would have been more willing to engage with students from other countries in classes, the dorms, and group projects.  Now that I work with them on a daily basis, I see the value in connecting with these groups.  Had I done a better job of communicating and working with students from other countries, my learning would have been accelerated at working with other cultures, leading to fewer issues in communication down the road.

For those still in undergrad, I challenge you to try a little harder in your group projects that have a student from another country to get to know them.  Ask them about their experience, culture, and goals.  I am sure you will find they are not all too different from your own.  Consider it a learning opportunity.  At the least, you will have a better understanding of a different culture and, who knows, maybe you’ll make a new friend.   

Why is it important to take advantage of this opportunity?  You don’t need to integrate a student who’s second (or third) language is English in a group project if you can get the entire project done yourself, right?  While true, you are missing out on furthering your education and becoming more well-rounded.  You are also assisting in depriving the student who’s second language is English, the ability to connect with a US born student - it is a two-way street.  It is critical to engage with those from different cultures at all points in your life, but especially as a student because it will put you in the habit of doing so for the rest of your life.

Rather than labeling students from different cultures as “international students,” which comes with preconceived notions, just call them “students.”  Taking this mental step to alter your thought process about people will help you overcome objections you have to getting to know someone.  Plus, in Corporate America, you don’t label employees as “international employees” - so why use the label as a student?

Thought Starters

  • Based on what area you are working in, what cultures do you expect to work alongside?
  • What level of interaction do you expect to have with other cultures in the workplace?