The workplace is an ever-evolving arena. Decades ago, women were not typically found in the office. Today women are found in every position, from the front lines of customer service to CEOs in multi-national corporations, to presidents of nations. This is a major change, certainly, but it is only one of many. Outside of women in the workplace, the cross-cultural dimension of the workspace has drastically shifted throughout the last century. Business has always crossed borders and boundaries, from the Silk Road that spanned China and Kazakhstan through India to Persia, and beyond, to the digital giant Google, with offices in over 40 countries today.
But what does it really mean to work across cultures? Does it mean that co-workers must be from different countries to come from different cultures? Or does cross-cultural interactions happen in every office, regardless of size and demographics of the culture? Over the past five years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time living and working in India and recently made the shift to living here full-time. While working at my first job in India, an NGO in South Delhi, I realized that the difficulties, as well as the successes, I faced by working in a mixed-culture office were not unique to me. Many of my Indian co-workers had similar experiences, both good and bad. Of course, being a foreigner brings its own set of challenges while working in India, but cross-cultural exchanges occur in every office, whether individuals from multiple nationalities work there or not.
If all employees in a given office are Indian, then how can I still consider it a mixed-culture office? Simple. Culture is not a monolithic entity. Culture is a group phenomenon, but experienced individually. Even though I am American, born in a western culture, my culture is not “American culture.” My culture is the combination of all my cultural experiences and my personal background melding together. So, while there may be two Indians sitting side-by-side, coming from the same hometown, what each considers culture in their life may seem as opposite as day and night. Working together as an efficient and unified team, despite differences, evolves from the understanding that cultural differences exist in every group of individuals, whether in the office, at home, or with friends. Just like in a drum circle, where the many instruments of different colors, shapes, sizes, and pitches come together to create a melodious sound, the individuals that come from the many different facets of society in an office come together to form a cohesive, harmonious unit. Workplace diversity does not stop at the office door but crosses from inner office workings to relationships with clients. Being culturally aware helps to better meet a clients needs and allows for a better experience. A win-win partnership evolves as the customers’ needs are met and as a company garners repeat business and an acclaim for providing quality service, built on mutual respect. Working across culture does not mean changing your way of being or fully embracing another’s culture, but is founded on understanding. Unity through diversity is the key to a successful and innovative work life.