As I move and continue to work in different countries I have noticed and understood that culture plays a big role in the professional world. At times, what is appropriate in one part of the world may not be viewed as such in another part of the world. In those times I have often wondered whether we should follow one way of conducting ourselves, or whether we should consider the context of where we live and perform accordingly?
Below are some observations I have made in my work as a global health professional:
In Tanzania and Haiti, most people refer to their elders and those with professional degrees by titles. Those who are elderly are revered as wise and experienced, and therefore, never get addressed by first name. Doctors and nurses are addressed by their professional titles to show respect for their many years of professional study. In contrast, in the U.S, many people prefer to be addressed by their first name, to enforce the notion that everyone is equal, no matter what their title – in order not to let hierarchies affect how people are viewed. An exception in my experience is that in a majority of the southern states, most people address each other using a title, especially when it comes to talking to elders.
In the U.S., we value speed, efficiency, and quick response times. When shopping at a store or conducting our work, we ensure this is all done as fast as possible. In many other countries, people take their time when conducting business. For example, when dining at restaurants in Haiti, we would often get greeted, and then have a conversation with those taking care of us. After a while, water would be served, and much after that, our meal orders would be placed. In India, when shopping for sarees, the shopkeepers serve chai as they unfold pile after pile of sarees to attract customers and seal the deal. As the customers sip cups of chai, the shopkeepers engage them in conversation, in order to build a connection with them. In the U.S., we are often too rushed or too busy to take time to greet and converse with each other, even our customers. In Haiti or India, it would be considered rude to not take the time to exchange pleasantries with your host, but in the U.S. that would be the norm.
Certain countries recognize current demographics by allowing people to celebrate holidays from their culture that were not historically practiced in that region. I grew up in Tanzania – which is predominantly Christian. There the government allows students with Indian heritage to observe holidays such as Diwali, Holi, and Eid. In Atlanta, where my niece currently attends elementary school, children are allowed to take the day off for Diwali and Eid. However, I do not think that all regions of the world follow this practice.
I believe one must be cognizant of the cultural norms of the country in which one is working. A few suggestions to keep in mind: One, obtain appropriate training on cultural practices that relate to the professional setting. Be curious enough to make an effort to understand those practices. When in doubt, lean on locals or experts who may be able to help you understand. Two, try to learn and speak the local language. That is one way to learn more about a culture and assimilate into a new setting. Three, learn about the history of the country where you are working – that always provides context and helps to explain the origins of certain practices.
Those who work and live in different cultures master the art of switching between different worlds quickly and with ease. The more open one is to adapting to different customs, the better the chances of becoming accustomed to them. An open and inquisitive mind, ready to learn and embrace different ways of thinking, working, and interacting, will lead to success with people of different backgrounds and cultures.