The Importance of Cultural Awareness

Late last year, Wellington College Hangzhou were delighted to send members of our leadership team to Cultural Awareness workshops taking place within the Wellington College China group. These were not only for expatriate staff but Chinese staff as well. Having led schools in a number of different countries and seen for myself the importance of ensuring that everyone working within a school can appreciate and understand each other’s different  viewpoints (and therefore work more effectively together), I know how crucial such workshops can be.

It is very easy when going to work in another country (or working with visiting expatriates in your own country) to take your own preconceptions and sometimes predisposed viewpoints as being the only path to follow.  For foreigners coming to China for example to assume that what you did, said and thought in a past workplace/country is equally valid once you start working abroad. Of course that is not the case and the way someone might behave, speak and especially listen in a country like China is very different (and has to be in order for any effective process and end result to take place) to how it might occur in somewhere like the UK. And to know and truly feel that is not a natural process for most of us. After all, the majority of us are brought up and ingrained in our own home cultures during what are  the most formative periods of our lives. What we see happening around us at that time is ‘normal’ and the ‘right’ way to do things, and certainly not to be questioned. Why should we? For us there are no meaningful alternatives. Despite the cultures and countries of the world  becoming closer and closer in terms of communication and access of travel, and the ability to know about another culture being more immediate than ever before – we don’t truly appreciate another culture until we are immersed in it. Knowing about (and being able to talk about)  and understanding, are two very different things. I am sure our non-Chinese teaching staff here in Hangzhou felt they knew all about China before arriving here. They had looked at YouTube (something they cannot now do so easily), read some books and perhaps even downloaded a few Apps on their mobile phones. However, they would now point out that when they arrived, the culture shock was so much more than they ever anticipated,  despite all the prior  Induction undertaken and the hours they personally spent finding out as much as they could about China – those staff were still all flabbergasted when taken out for their first team meal of chicken feet and pigs trotters. And the Chinese staff were equally amazed that none of the expatriates had ever eaten this before.

So how do we overcome this natural cultural barrier/gap in as short a time as possible. That’s where specific cultural awareness workshops are so important. To enable staff to see how those of another culture view, to see exactly how it is they are reacting to those of a different culture, and then ultimately share strategies so we can all be as effective as possible in a common goal – which is to educate the pupils  in our care as well as we can. I am sure I am no expert when it comes to cultural awareness  – however I have lived in a range of countries and been in a position where I have had to work as closely and competently as I can with local staff. If there is one important approach I would emphasize, it is the importance of listening. Real listening.  And often not to what is said, but to what is not said – something that is in itself a cultural difference between China and the UK.  The inferences are more subtle and stylized and as a result we need to often take a step back and take our time more when engaged in conversations – and hopefully dialogue.

I remember when my Senior Leadership Team returned from their cultural awareness training; so full of new information, ideas and approaches. At our first SLT meeting (despite having our own agreed ‘Meeting Guidelines’ for some time),  just the way we began our meeting led to five minutes of conversation, real discussion and indeed humour. The realization that culture can play such a big part in how a meeting is begun, the hidden rules of etiquette in regard to who might speak first, how we listen, where we might sit and how we listen. Do we interrupt when someone else is talking? Are we interrupting if we talk before someone ends their thoughts? Do all cultural representatives feel they are ready to move on to the next topic of conversation – and so on. It becomes more complex, fascinating and hopefully we are more able to understand each other more as a result of the training undertaken and our response to it. Of course, the trick as with any new initiative, is to revisit it and keep discussing and make it as open and transparent as possible. Here’s to a more effective workplace for all and a better understanding of the strengths we all bring to an effective working environment.

Paul Rogers, Executive Master Hangzhou


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