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Cultural Competence 101

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “‘Companies Don’t Go Global, People Do’” – An Interview with Andy Molinsky by Sarah Cliffe in Harvard Business Review, October 2015 (Vol. 93, #10, p. 82-85),; Molinsky can be reached at
In this Harvard Business Review article, Sarah Cliffe interviews Brandeis University professor Andy Molinsky about his research on dealing with cultural differences without violating one’s sense of self. This article is intended for business leaders working in international contexts, but it has implications for K-12 educators working in multicultural settings.
When people interact across cultural boundaries, says Molinsky, they first have to figure out what the cultural norms are and how they differ from their “home” culture along six dimensions:
- Directness
- Enthusiasm
- Formality
- Assertiveness
- Self-promotion
- Self-disclosure
Then people need to figure out the “zone of appropriateness” as they deal with people from different cultural backgrounds. Finally, they have to figure out what adaptations are needed (and that they’re willing to make) and practice until they are comfortable.
“We tend to exaggerate what’s required,” says Molinsky. The key is being sensitive while figuring out your comfort zone. “Does giving criticism more directly (for example) make you feel sick to your stomach or just strange and uncomfortable? People’s answers vary greatly. The gap is about who you are as much as it is about your culture. If there’s a big gap between what’s considered appropriate and what you’re comfortable with, that’s the place to start.”
Here’s another example. A manager asks his employees for their ideas, but the norm in this organization is that managers make top-down decisions. People interpret his reaching out as a sign that he doesn’t have any ideas of his own and isn’t a competent leader. The manager figures this out and ends up using a hybrid approach: he continues to ask people to contribute ideas because he believes it will help them grow professionally, but then makes top-down decisions on his own.
When leaders are trying to adapt to a new culture, says Molinsky, they sometimes feel inauthentic (“This is just not me”), less than competent, and resentful. “We know in theory that we need to adapt to different cultural norms,” he says, “but it’s really hard, stressful work. And when you’re stressed, you’re generally at your least creative and productive. So you resent the whole situation.” But he’s found that if leaders hang in there, they get over the hump and may even learn interesting things about themselves – perhaps aspects of the culture that are a better fit with their personality.
Building relationships across cultural barriers is “huge,” says Molinsky. “Once someone has gotten to know you pretty well, they’re going to cut you some slack when you screw up, which you will. You’ll cut yourself some slack too if you feel that you’re known and trusted and that people wish you well.” Self-conscious commentary on culture can be a helpful part of building relationships and trust. A Dutch manager giving a presentation in Chicago knew that back home, he would never include a joke in a business presentation. But in this American setting, he said, “I’m about to do something very un-Dutch” and put up a relevant Dilbert cartoon.
Bicultural people have a big advantage in multicultural situations, says Molinsky. “They’ve already learned how to code-switch – how to make an almost unconscious calculation about which set of behaviors to use depending on where they are. They don’t have the deep, magnetic default that most people do.”

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