As technology improves and the world becomes ever smaller, global workplaces are becoming increasingly culturally diverse. As such, employers, managers, team leads, and, well, every team member, could benefit from learning more about cultural sensitivity. But cultural awareness cannot simply be learned from a textbook, and no amount of online research can teach you empathy.
That’s not to say that these things can’t be learned at all, however. Travel is widely considered to broaden horizons and expose travelers to cultural diversity. Indeed, experiencing different cultures firsthand and finding yourself in the minority can be a superb way to gain a better understanding of different people and their beliefs.
In an increasingly global world, this kind of experience is crucial for personal, and indeed professional, growth. Individuals and employers alike who are seeking to be more culturally sensitive can benefit from embracing the work from anywhere (WFA) movement. In this article, we’ll find out how.
What Does Cultural Awareness Mean?
For many of us, cultural awareness is a term that we hear regularly but seldom think too much about. Cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity are often used interchangeably, but they do differ slightly.
In its most basic form, cultural awareness is the knowledge that other cultures exist, complete with their own world views, belief systems, and attitudes. Cultural sensitivity generally refers to the acceptance of these other cultures and an understanding that one’s own culture is not superior, just different. It defines those who not only understand but also respect other people’s differences.
Why Is Cultural Awareness Important?
In the workplace, someone who is culturally sensitive, or has cultural competence, is a person who is flexible enough to work with, respect, and understand people from all backgrounds. They won’t disregard people or treat them differently based on things like:
- Sexual orientation
- Physical or mental disabilities
- Level of education
- Religious beliefs
- Social background
Instead of finding these differences a challenge, such variables can be a source of enormous inspiration. They can encourage the team to think outside the proverbial box and welcome a host of different perspectives, producing results that might not have been possible without cultural diversity. Cultural awareness in the workplace can be a great way to draw on the personal experiences, beliefs, and world views of a diverse team to create ever more innovative products, ideas, and experiences.
Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to work remotely, though some businesses are reluctant to make the leap. But, by embracing the WFA movement, companies can encourage their employees to see the world and become more culturally sensitive. Not only does this benefit the employee, but it creates a valuable asset for the business. It’s a win-win situation.
How To Develop Cultural Awareness?
The benefits of embracing cultural diversity in the workplace are clear. But it’s one thing to create a diverse team, and another to see them work together to their full potential. For a culturally diverse team to truly thrive, it’s important to encourage cultural sensitivity.
On an individual level, there are a few better ways to become more culturally aware than to travel. The effects of living in a foreign country for an extended period of time can really make a difference.
How Living Abroad Helps You Develop
There are a lot of cultural benefits of traveling, though some experiences are more likely to encourage personal growth than others. For example, traveling to a tourist resort in an exotic location and only spending time with other westerners probably won’t teach you much about another culture.
When you live in another country though and immerse yourself in the culture — spend time with locals, eat the regional delicacies, and learn the language — then you begin to truly appreciate that despite our different backgrounds, we’re all humans that are capable of collaborating, understanding, and loving one another.
If empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, there’s no better way to do it than to live like a local. When you do this, you’ll start to reap the lifelong benefits of living abroad, leading to personal and professional growth.
The Hero’s Journey
All this talk of jumping ship and living abroad is all well and good, but it’s not always so simple to pack up and relocate. However, in the modern world and contrary to popular belief, you don’t really need to be wealthy to start a new life in a new country. What you do need to be is flexible, determined, and just a little bit lucky.
If you’ve ever read any classic fantasy literature or mythology, you’ll be familiar with the hero’s journey. American writer Joseph Campbell sums it up thus:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
The upsurge in remote working and the work from anywhere (WFA) movement over the last few years have made it far more possible to embark on the hero’s journey. For many, as long as they have an internet signal and a laptop, relocating while remaining at work is very doable. The hardest part, as we know from Bilbo Baggins, is to take that first step.
As you delve into exciting new places, there’s a good chance you will encounter hardship and strife. Outside of your normal comfort zone, you’ll have no choice but to tackle these issues and get through to the other side, a more determined, and hopefully wiser person. And in the best case, your experiences will enable you to ‘bestow boons on your fellow human beings, in this case, cultural sensitivity and empathy.
Making the Most Out of Cultural Travel Experiences
As we hinted at before, traveling alone won’t automatically teach you to be more culturally aware. You could travel to every country in the world, but if you only stay in luxury hotels and socialize with people you already know, you’ll learn very little about other cultures. To get the most out of travel, you really need to throw yourself into it. Here are a few ideas.
Spend at Least 1 Month in One Place
You can’t really get to know a place or its people unless you spend a good amount of time there. Four weeks will give you time to grasp the language basics, sample the local dishes, and meet plenty of people.
Venture off the Beaten Track
Try not to stay only in the capital city of your chosen destination. Very few capitals reflect what the real country is like and for a more authentic experience, it’s worth exploring smaller towns and more rural areas. Experiences like masterclasses allow you to immerse yourself in the local culture, learning new skills all while escaping the tourist traps. The same goes for food. Give the golden arches a swerve and indulge in local dining experiences.
Learn the Language
It is said that you can learn any language in five months, but even if you only learn the basics, that’ll still allow you to immerse yourself in the local culture. Culture and language are intertwined and it’s fascinating to see just how much slang, accents, curse words, and the local sense of humor can reveal about the people you’re surrounded by.
Meet the Locals
It can be tempting to stay with what’s familiar when you’re in a new place. Many digital nomads tend to hang out with other ex-pats and only ever meet the locals when they need to buy something from the store. This is a crying shame though! Get out there and socialize with the locals as well. You’ll learn so much and improve your language skills to boot. Plus, you never know where it could lead in terms of personal and professional growth.
Creating a culturally diverse workplace is something that all modern companies should strive for. Not only does this afford equal opportunities to people from all backgrounds, but it also offers many benefits to employers, such as:
- A much larger employee pool: You can hire talent from across the globe, rather than in one small area.
- Diverse input: Hearing the points of view of people from a range of backgrounds can give you the edge over your competition as you leave no stone unturned.
- Reach a wider audience: With voices from across the globe, you can speak to people around the world in their own language.
Cultural Diversity Alone Isn’t Enough
However, it’s important to bear in mind that cultural diversity is just the start. You need team members who possess cultural awareness and sensitivity to create a respectful, healthy, and productive work environment.
People who have lived and worked abroad extensively are more likely to have been exposed to cultural differences. Those who understand what it’s like to be the minority are also often more empathetic towards the people around them. But travel is by no means a sure indicator.
Individuals can learn a lot from traveling but as an employer, it’s important to avoid making the mistake of assuming that just because someone has traveled, they’re more culturally aware than someone who hasn’t. Always judge individuals on their own merits and for the right candidates, perhaps you can help them gain more travel experience by encouraging a work from anywhere mentality.