Same-same, but different
Creative professionals can be found in every corner of the world. By doing creative work in more than ten countries I learned to appreciate the benefits and challenges of having a multinational team. Not only do you have to deal with the usual pitfalls of a creative team, but you must deal with the creative legacies of many different cultures.When you can accomplish this successfully, you will find that an diverse international group can producer stronger and more innovative work than a group with a high level of cultural homogeny. More of the same, produces more of the same.
Symbols and artefacts give outsiders a clue as to a culture’s creative values. Artefacts may be works of art, first prize ribbons or even a company’s first invoice – but they tell outsiders what a culture finds important. Symbols, on the other hand, are triggers – they remind members of a culture about what is important. When symbols and artefacts encourage imagination and exploration, a culture can be viewed as having a positive attitude towards creativity by outsiders. When they stress conformity, the opposite is true. In both cases, it is what these objects mean to the members of the culture that is important.
Prepare Before You Go
Take a reading on the nations pulse
Tap into mainstream media; local newspapers, movies, tv shows and magazines are obvious stethoscopes to a beating heart of a nation.
Read Culture Shock!
The book series “culture shock! A survival guide to customs and etiquette” offers great introductions and insights on countries and mayor cities of the world. Not being a tourist guide but aimed at working professionals who relocate the books deal with the relevant, practical and interpersonal challenges which incessantly arises when venturing into unknown territory.
Anthony Bourdain said it well in Kitchen Confidential: “Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”
Considering local cuisine, gastronomic subtleties, customs of taste and flavours does give valuable clues on national character. Sharing a meal is – cultural differences aside – a bonding ritual.
Al manners of manners
Lord Shaftesbury described manners as “the art of being pleasing in company”. Before you travel find local hang-outs or gatherings for the culture in your area. Having done the research will make you better prepared to face your new project team. Stay humble and be aware that when they tell you ‘all is good’ you need to be able distinguish whether it means ‘excellent’ or ‘back to the drawing board’.
Not knowing how to conduct oneself may cause embarrassment. Each country I work is an opportunity to learn. Both as a human being, creatively, and about conducting myself better.
First arriving in Singapore, I did not know that in Singaporean food-courts there is procedure for reserving a table called ‘chopeing’. A group of people reserves, or as it is called, chope a table by placing a packet of tissues on the table or the chairs. My first time to lunch with colleagues, I found an empty table at the food-court. Not noticing the tissue packs placed at each seat. While digging into the ‘lucky chicken soup’ a group of older ladies arrived and starred at me with disgust, hissing at me as one of them pulled her well used napkin out of my hands.
In any country, advertisers play the game of dreams. Commercials and advertisements captures twinkles of the subliminal, the desires and concepts of the perfect, embedded deep in the cultural foundation. The frequent call for national adaptations and adjustments of global campaigns is an emphasis which cannot be ignored.
Music is an inescapable tread weaving and bobbing through the cultural backdrop. Music both influences and represents the atmosphere, currents of fashion & arts, and state of mind. For an auditory sneak peak and a way to synchronize, I usually download the national top 20 and make it my playlist before packing my bags.
Observe traffic, how nation drives reveals how they mentally navigates a myriad of situations. When possible try using public transportation.
Josh Dougan created this clip showing the challenges of crossing the stampede of traffic in Vietnam.
Encouraging Creativity Across Multicultural Teams
The basic definition of culture – it is a shared set of belief, attitudes, and values that a group of people shares. Due to cultural bias it is easy to overlook the huge impact culture has on creativity. Not only can it help individuals in a country to become more creative, but it can also hinder them.
How a culture views the self is important. When a culture encourages social mobility and choice, creativity tends to be more prevalent than in its more rigid counterparts. How a culture looks at the future will also determine how creativity is seen. If there are overly strict moral guides, it can be difficult for an individual to push his or her boundaries. If those guidelines are more permeable, though, creative change becomes more likely.
In many ways, culture and creativity come down to values. Some values are supportive – they tell individuals the difference between right and wrong. When those supportive values are negative, the values are enforced by confining the imagination. When those values are more creative, members are given the chance to explore.
The most common issue when working with a multicultural team is the language barrier. Creative jobs tend to be filled with idiomatic jargon, words and phrases that simply don’t translate. When you build an international crew, you might find that the basic act of communication is more difficult than you had anticipated. This might be mitigated by hiring people who travel, who speak more than one language and are familiar with other cultures. The change in the way your team speaks, changes the way that they think.
Present your group with clear expectations. Embrace what makes each team member unique, yet emphasize that you are working towards a common goal.
Key points to remember when assembling a creative team across cultural boundaries are:
- Maintain clear expectations.
- When in doubt, have the processes of your workplace explained.
- Always ask questions of your group members. Don’t assume that you understand what a specific behaviour means.
- Promote equality and be mindful to the differences in how to express that you value each member.
- Overcome barriers by building camaraderie and making your team feel like a part of a larger purpose.