2023-02-10 🍵 Some of my favorite reads on cross-cultural communication. Biased towards the practical.
Deep Diversity by Choudhury
- Deep Diversity, Shakil Choudhury, 2021. Ebook and print.
Choudhury’s thesis is that you can’t think your way out of “us/them” problems, because they’re not cognitive problems.
The first time I read this book it was with a sense of relief – something I’ve said elsewhere is that you need to develop new heuristics to successfully work or live in a new culture. I say this because I’ve experienced it acutely. But how do you do that? The process is not always intuitive.
Choudhury, who is a corporate trainer and anti-racist activist based in Toronto, gives you all the tools you need to start improving your cross-cultural communication. Start here.
Talking about bias and racism is hard; I appreciate Choudhury’s willingness to always use his own embarrassing mistakes as an example. The example scenarios are well-drawn, examined minute by minute, to help you understand the concept.
This book is focused on Canada and the US. So, if your social reference points are elsewhere in the world, some of the stories might resonate more than others.
If you want to do more reading later, the footnotes are practically a syllabus. Use them. Most important to me, though, is that this book is written for you to use. It’s all about action.
The Culture Map by Meyer
- The Culture Map, Erin Meyer, 2015. Ebook and print.
Right now, Meyer’s book is my go-to gift for friends and clients who are preparing for an important work trip.
Getting work done in a new culture can be significantly more difficult, time consuming and expensive simply because you and your team are not culturally proficient.
Meyer quickly explains how your personal choices and communication style are influenced by culture. From there, she provide examples of how you can adapt your approach so that you can communicate successfully in other cultures.
Whether you’re traveling is irrelevant, really. This is a great book. I think I’ve gifted half a dozen copies.
Trust by Khanna
- Trust: building the foundation for entrepreneurship in developing countries, Tarun Khanna, 2018. Ebook and Print.
Read Khanna if you want to understand how your cultural assumptions will impact your mission’s chance for success in a system that’s wildly different to what you’re used to.
You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to have a mission. You don’t need to be upper-level management in a large company to take something from this book. I don’t have a corporate career. And I figure that if someone in the C-Suite – with a team and company resources backing them – needs a book like this to approach deep, cultural challenges, the rest of us need it even more. That’s the way I’m reading this book.
Anyway, nothing in this book takes place in an office. The territory of this book is football stadiums, micro-loans, heart surgery. Through a series of vignettes, Khanna shows you how money, time, infrastructure don’t work the way you expect. Customers will not follow the patterns you expect, and neither will suppliers or staff.
The examples will help you reflect on your own potential blind spots, and I think this is a practical way to start mapping your personal unknown unknowns.
In the introduction Khanna says, “A change of mindset is needed to move away from the idea that entrepreneurs should be laser-focused on the problems they want to solve… to a mindset that emphasizes that they don’t have that luxury in the developing world… they must create the conditions to create.” This idea reminds me of Jan Chipchase’s concept of Minimum Viable Infrastruture, which he describes in a booklet called Today’s Office. Let’s revisit Chipchase at the end of this list.
Test your assumptions within the cultural paradigm of the community where you’re doing business, Khanna says. Your product, your playbook, your perspective will all need to be focused on the local community. Only then can you build local trust. And only then will your organization have what it needs to succeed.
(Personally, I’m not sure how well some of the book’s terms are holding up, e.g.: “emerging markets,” or the “developing” countries from the subtitle. I just re-read Khanna’s book, though, and it feels as relevant as ever.)
In this same vein, another resource I like is a free, 2-part podcast by Freakonomics Radio on American culture:
- Freakonomics Radio Ep. 469
- Freakonomics Radio Ep. 470
These episodes are especially interesting if you are, in fact, American. Here, we’re taught to think of our country as special, not different: “Different” the same way e-commerce runs differently in Suzhou than in Sydney; “Different” the same way that the hiring process for healthcare workers is different in Mumbai and Madrid.
Intellectually, this doesn’t feel like it should be difficult to solve, but the day-to-day hustle will teach you just how different you really are. Tourists will be forgiven for their naivety. The rest of us need to put in the work.
Global Dexterity by Molinksy
- Global Dexterity, Andy Molinsky, 2013. Ebook and print.
Working outside your own culture can feel overwhelming. What behaviors do you need to change? How do you maintain a sense of self while adapting to this new cultural paradigm? Molinksy has some ideas. His tactics are based on a decade of research, 70-some interviews and working with international students and colleagues.
I particularly like section 3 where he discusses finding a cultural mentor, and ways your own foreignness can impact other’s perceptions of your mistakes.
While the book is framed for corporate workers, I think the ideas and strategies here can be applied elsewhere, too. If you are a volunteer, self-employed, or a student; if you are in a foreign culture* and need to collaborate with people to get stuff done, this book can help. It certainly helped me.
* Foreign means far away but there are lots of ways to measure distance.
Collaborating with the Enemy by Kahane
- Collaborating with the Enemy: how to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust, Adam Kahane, 2017. Ebook and print.
Kahane wants to teach you how to better manage your perspective. He wants to prepare you for situations that you can’t walk away from, to step into and out of different perspectives, to adapt and to collaborate.
In chapter 7, he says, “…we separate and shield ourselves by asserting that we are right and the others are wrong. We fear that if we collaborate with those others, we will become contaminated or compromised – that we will betray what we stand for and who we are.” Instead, he goes on, be intentional and reframe your approach: “I can phone home to say that I will be late ‘because I am in traffic’ or ‘because I am traffic’. The latter explanation explicitly opens up my options to work with others to change the situation.”
The ideas here pair well with Choudhury’s book, which is at the top of this list.
Kahane’s strategies aren’t specific to cross-cultural scenarios. I found they adapt well to that context, though. To that end, the book’s conclusion includes a structured series of exercises.
The intention of this book reminds me a little of de Bono’s decision-making book, Six Thinking Hats, or Burn’s cognitive behavioral therapy classic, Feeling Good. Kahane, however, deals with systemic poverty and guerrilla wars. He’s worked as a conflict mediator and scenario planner for governments and NGOs around the world.
If you’re in a hurry, start midway through: Chapter 5 is probably a good spot. Then flip back through earlier chapters when you need to fill in.
I listened to the audiobook first. I got more out of it the second time, when I re-read the ebook version. Kahane writes well but these ideas are complex, and I often wanted to re-read sections or check the footnotes. At this point, I’ve read the book several times. It’s been very useful.
The Field Study Handbook by Chipchase
- The Field Study Handbook, Jan Chipchase, 2018. Print.
If you’re ready to level up, this book is worth your time. Chipchase is a researcher whose work takes him to communities all over the world. This is less of a how-to book and more of a why-to book, he says. I like this framing. Read this book hoping to get into that headspace. That’s why I read it, anyway.
Chipchase is a masterful observer of culture. Try Chapter 11: Rapid Calibration Techniques. You can learn a lot about culture by taking in the “the obvious and unquestioned activities” of everyday life, he says.
When I read Chapter 13: Data Collection, I was struck by the terse, 7-item list titled “Data Collection Field Principles” on page 326. (It’s good advice. When I worked as a photographer for NGO clients, I learned to apply a similar list of rules to myself and my images.) Back in the introduction, in a section titled “The cost of a lack of context,” Chipchase explains why it’s worth protecting your process: “Intent is the most important aspect of data collection, and the first to suffer once the organization looks to scale collection. Compromise on intent, and the data set will become tainted, contaminating everything it touches.”
Chipchase is a generous writer. The book is beautifully put together, too: well-organized, and filled with charts, photos and illustrations. It is also expensive, compared to the other books on this list, and I had to save up for it. It was worth it. There is so much to learn here. The book is print only but I’m hoping the author will release an ebook edition.
Last updated: 2023-02-10