Cultural Agility: Perspectives & Viewpoints

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  • 0:04 Frame of Reference
  • 1:10 Cultural Agility Skills
  • 4:45 Applying Cultural Agility
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Matthiesen-Jones

Mary has worked around the world for over 30 years in international business, advertising, and market research. She has a Master's degree in International Management and has taught University undergraduate and graduate level courses .

Cultural agility is a key skill in the global marketplace. Learn how considering different perspectives and appreciating diverse viewpoints can boost your cultural agility.

Frame of Reference

How a manager, Ann, in Boston approaches getting an agreement to a proposal is very different from how a manager in Seoul, Ha-yoon, would handle the same scenario. Their cultures are very different. Every culture has its own frame of reference, or the context in which we live and work.

The Boston manager operates in a low-context culture where language is clear and direct, there is no ambiguity, and the approval process does not revolve around a cultural hierarchy. The Seoul manager, on the other hand, works in a high-context culture where language might be vague and ambiguous, people have to read between the lines of what is said, and deference to superiors is the norm.

Cultural agility is the ability to comfortably move across different cultures, understanding both behavioral norms and the reason behind them. As long as the two managers operate within their own cultural context, they do not need cultural agility. However, what if Ann must travel to Seoul to work with Ha-Yoon on a project? How can they effectively collaborate when they come from two very different frames of reference?

Cultural Agility Skills

Development of cultural agility is a mindset: it determines how one approaches new situations and learns from those experiences. There are five basic skills that build cultural agility:

1. Self-awareness

In order to understand the perspectives of another culture, whether from people in the same office or halfway around the world, understanding one's own cultural views and biases is necessary. An honest appraisal of beliefs about others establishes a platform for learning.

Ann realizes that she knows very little about Korea and Korean culture other than what she has seen in movies and on the news. She recognizes that this trip is an opportunity to experience what the country and its people are really like.

2. Understanding the frame of reference

Understanding other people's frame of reference is an important step in building cultural agility. Both managers need to take time to understand one another's culture. Sharing language helps, but developing a deeper understanding of culture is the key. Don't assume that your way is the right way.

Ann follows Ha-Yoon's lead in the meetings and does not just take any seat at the table. She needs to adjust to the environment and not assume that Boston and Seoul do things in the same way. She is directed where to sit. She notices that people sit according to their status in the company and that there is an order to who speaks first.

She realizes that the company's frame of reference is the Confucian hierarchy, which is central to Korean life. Respect for authority and maintaining harmony guide how the meeting progresses. Ann studied Korean culture before arriving so was mentally prepared to set aside her own views on meeting etiquette.

3. Finding commonalities

Cultural agility is also the ability to move back and forth between cultures without becoming distressed. Looking for cultural commonalities helps to ease the process.

In Seoul, as in Boston, everyone arrives on time. In communication, however, Ann finds that the language used in the meeting is more respectful than she would encounter in Boston and that first names are not used. However, the focus, just like in Boston, is on clarity and coming to agreement. Through recognizing these similarities, she is able to feel comfortable with the differences.

4. Be curious but not critical

Both women are curious about one another, their cultures, and their ways of doing business. Over lunches together, they also discover some similarities when they discuss what it is like to be women in business. They ask each other questions about how things are different.

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