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September 5, 2017 / 

Anneli L. Tostar

Using images to get different cultures on the same page at work

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There’s a lot of buzz around “work culture” these days, and it’s obvious that the behaviors, practices, and attitudes in your workplace shape your experience and the kind of work you produce. This can be a tricky thing to manage and cultivate, but becomes even more complicated when you have people from very different backgrounds in the same environment. Navigating language is one thing. Navigating work styles is another.

In this piece we give you some pointers for where you might come across cultural friction, and how to navigate this and communicate clearly using images.

 

 

  1. Conceptions of time and task completion

As crazy as it might sound, people from different parts of the world can perceive time differently. While some cultures view time as a kind of continuous spectrum, such as U.S. culture and Western Europe, there are some that think of the past, present, and future as being very interrelated, which can affect deadlines and perceptions of urgency. Completing tasks may seem irrelevant to people used to forming relationships with their colleagues first, whereas others may want to focus immediately on the task at hand.

To help everybody get on the same page when it comes to deadlines and project work, it can be helpful to very clearly lay out what needs to be done and by when on paper, so that there can be no in-person ambiguity, while also incorporating feedback from employees on what they need to thrive. Images in these memos, surveys, Word documents and emails can make them feel less formal, while also polished.

 

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  1. Context-specific understanding

Here, we’re not saying that you need to know everyone’s backgrounds in order to understand the point they’re trying to make. That’s simply impossible. Instead, be aware that there are certain cultures where what is being said verbally only tells half the picture; reading non-verbal cues and knowing the specific situation is crucial for understanding the person’s actual feelings on a matter.

This is a great area for using presentation images in meetings, because while of course some generic stock photos can be interpreted any number of ways, they provide a kind of tangibility when things feel vague or like people aren’t on the same page.

 


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  1. Displays of emotion

Our readers in Scandinavia might be familiar with this particular cultural difference; while Northern Europeans may feel just as strongly about something as a Brazilian, the Brazilians are far more likely to scream and yell if they don’t like something (or even if they do). This can mean very different ways of working, whether on group assignments or in taking notes at a meeting. Of course people’s personalities play a role here, but also be careful not to confuse shyness or gregarious behavior with ingrained cultural reactions. When people can react so differently to the same news or task, it may be appropriate to carve out places for them to do so however they please. Interactive and casual presentations that use photos, icons or clipart, and other reaction-triggering visuals can help free people to laugh, scowl, and wince, without these differences overpowering a stiff meeting.

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  1. Decision-making and conflict

We’re often taught in Western cultures that working problems out in person is productive and healthy. However, in many cultures this kind of “problem solving” is still seen as quite confrontational, and can make people feel highly embarrassed. While everyone has a preferred method of giving feedback, for this feedback to be effective it may be worth asking your colleague how he / she would like it presented. If there’s a particular skill that needs developing, a video can even be a valuable asset to pedantically introducing a new subject.

 

As with many of the issues we’ve talked about on the blog, most of these conflicts and misunderstanding can be avoided with proper communication. But you have to have an idea of why these problems are arising, first. Taking a holistic approach that makes room for understanding different backgrounds can also make your workplace more creative, which leads to better ideas, and better work. High-quality, royalty free photos are just one piece of the creative puzzle.

   

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Who wrote this?  

This was posted by Anneli L. Tostar, a Harvard-trained anthropologist and artist, originally from Portland, Oregon. She now lives in Stockholm and is studying urban planning and design. Anneli speaks five languages and understands none of them. 


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